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Save the Planet with a Vegetarian Diet

By Patrice Green, M.D.

This opinion piece was published on July 19, 2007, in The Baltimore Sun.

Temperatures are rising around the world, ice caps are melting, and storms are becoming more severe. Even the Chesapeake Bay and its surrounding island communities are at risk. Death tolls from the increasing heat are also rising, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health's department of environmental health.

It's time for action. Sensational headlines may leave many people feeling overwhelmed about climate change. But global warming can be slowed—and many Americans are trying to do just that.

We're getting "greener": Recycling, energy-saving light bulbs and fuel-efficient hybrid cars are now a part of our culture and economy.

But most people are neglecting one of the most important steps toward stopping global warming: adopting a vegetarian diet.

Americans need to know that what we eat has a huge impact on the environment—and changing our diet can make a difference. Animal agriculture, a major source of water pollution and deforestation, has become one of the biggest culprits in global warming. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report this year showing that farmed animals are a top contributor to today's serious environmental problems, including greenhouse gases.

The report found that livestock produced 35 percent to 40 percent of all methane emissions (which have 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide), 65 percent of nitrous oxide (which is 320 times as warming as carbon dioxide) and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes to acid rain.

Nearly 30 percent of the Earth's land surface is used for grazing animals, and that number is expected to increase with the global livestock sector growing faster than any other agricultural subsector. That's because in almost every region of the world, consumption of animal products is on the rise.

This trend has another disturbing consequence. The global increase in meat consumption has caused rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses to soar.

If we're going to reverse the damage we've done to our health and the environment, we have to begin now.

Eliminating or reducing meat and other animal products is easier than most people think. I've seen this firsthand among my patients in Baltimore: They experience improvements in their weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels after making healthful dietary changes, and they stick with their new diet because they enjoy the food and feel better.

It's time to go beyond greening our cars, light bulbs and cleaning products. By piling more leafy green vegetables on our plates, we can literally green our diets - and reduce environmental damage to the planet.

Studies have shown that people who follow a plant-based diet are slimmer and have less risk of chronic, diet-related diseases than people on high-fat, meat-based diets. In fact, America could begin to reverse its diabetes and obesity epidemics by turning to a high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian diet consisting primarily of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and beans, lentils and peas.

Other side effects of a meatless diet include lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and increased energy.

Staying healthy and fighting global warming can go hand in hand.

By greening our diets, we just might be able to save ourselves—and the planet.

Dr. Patrice Green, a primary care physician in Baltimore, is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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