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Ford Could Cut Health Care Costs with Vegetarian Diets

By Neal Barnard, M.D.
February 2006

This opinion piece was published Feb. 6, 2006, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

How much do you like chicken wings? Or cheeseburgers? Or pork chops? Enough to lose your job? At Ford Motor Company, that’s exactly the question workers should be asking themselves.

Ford has announced massive layoffs. More than 30,000 North American Ford employees will be out of work, and their families will have to scramble to make a new start.

One main reason cited by company officials for the layoffs is health care costs. Skyrocketing doctor bills, hospital bills, and prescription drug costs have driven up the sticker prices on Ford’s cars and trucks. The same problem is also hurting the bottom line at GM, Chrysler, and other American manufacturers.

If you stop by a Ford plant—or any American factory—you’ll see why. We are one out-of-shape country. One-third of Americans are now moderately overweight, and another third are obese. Every pound a worker gains pushes his or her cholesterol up about one point. Twenty pounds, 20 points. Fifty pounds, 50 points.

To counteract the cholesterol-raising effect of chicken wings and chili dogs, we take Lipitor. The cholesterol-lowering pill is the most popular drug in Detroit, just as in every other American city. One tablet costs about three dollars. A year’s supply runs more than $1,000.  

Our national ponderousness has also brought us unprecedented epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure, which demand more drugs—two or three for diabetes, another two, three, or even four for hypertension. Like an addict driven into bankruptcy by a costly habit, everyday Americans are now spending a fortune on legal drugs, doctor visits, and tests. 

It is time to wake up and smell the crisis. If Ford aims to compete, it needs to regain its edge. As a doctor and nutrition researcher, I would like to make a modest suggestion.

At breakfast, let’s toss out the bacon and eggs and cook up a big bowl of oatmeal instead. Top it with cinnamon and raisins, not cream and sugar. At lunch, make it a veggie burger or vegetable stew. At dinner, top that pasta with marinara, not Alfredo sauce.

An economic analysis by my research team, published in Preventive Medicine more than 10 years ago, predicted the effects of eating habits on health care costs. At that time, meaty diets were responsible for more than $60 billion in health care expenditures every year. Today’s figures would likely be double that number.

Many Americans are already breaking the meat habit to cut their cholesterol, lose weight, or build their stamina. As a group, vegetarians are slim. An average meat-eater can easily trim away 20 pounds or more by switching to a plant-based diet.

Detailed medical studies have shown that, like nonsmokers, people who skip the meat course require fewer doctor visits, fewer operations, and fewer prescriptions. A 2003 JAMA study showed that vegetarian diets lower cholesterol levels almost as powerfully as statin drugs. Meatless eating habits can also cut the risk of heart problems, diabetes, hypertension, and even cancer.

Of course, any menu change takes a little getting used to. But a healthy diet sure beats Lipitor, diabetes drugs, and unemployment.

Could putting greens on our plates put green back in the company till? Could swapping a meaty hot dog for a veggie dog—or a meaty taco for a bean burrito or a Chinese pork carry-out for sautéed vegetables and rice—really trim a car’s sticker price? Yes, it will do all that and much more.

If our workforce really pulls together and resolves to get healthy, and if management provides healthful foods in the company cafeterias, along with the training and incentives workers need to make the shift, we’ll make our industries more competitive.

And we’ll also revolutionize the health of this country.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Neal Barnard, M.D.

Neal Barnard, M.D.

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