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Vegetarian Diet Could Help Bail Out the Big Three

By Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E.
This opinion piece was published on Dec. 21, 2008, in The Tampa Tribune.

As Detroit automakers and their employees search for ways to convince federal politicians of their long-term viability, they might want to check their refrigerators. The Big Three chiefs have already offered to slash their paychecks, lose their private jets, and give up failing brands—but the key to resolving their fiscal woes and getting their business plans back in order might be helping workers cut out the chili cheese dogs and bacon burgers they are chowing down on back in Detroit.

Ford Motor Company, Chrysler, and General Motors are asking the federal government for tens of billions of dollars to rescue them from their financial crisis. GM officials say employee health care coverage is a major reason the company is in trouble. To cover the skyrocketing doctor bills, hospital bills, and prescription drug costs, sticker prices on all GM cars and trucks have to go up about $1,500.

Detroit automakers—and all American manufacturers—are spending a fortune on health care because the workforce is so out-of-shape. Two-thirds of American adults are now overweight or obese. And as the Big Three employees get bigger, so do their health care bills. Unfortunately, if current trends continue unchecked, almost 90 percent of American adults will be overweight or obese by 2030, according to a recent study in the journal Obesity. As a nurse practitioner specializing in the care of people with diabetes, I know that Americans' expanding waistlines bring unprecedented epidemics of diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Nearly 24 million Americans are coping with diabetes, and they almost doubled their spending on medications for the disease in just the past six years. Most people with type 2 diabetes take several different medications to control cholesterol and blood sugar, and even more patients are getting multiple prescriptions as new drugs come on the market. Americans with diabetes are spending a whopping $12.5 billion annually on medications alone. And if that didn't shock you, this definitely will: America is now spending at least $174 billion a year treating diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Americans' unhealthy habits are causing entire industries to go under. If GM wants to see its 101st birthday next year, it must quickly step up and make some changes to show wary politicians that it is serious about securing a profitable future. I have a modest suggestion for how GM and all American industries can steer the wheel in the right direction to get ahead of the curve.

When cruising the grocery store aisles, let's fill our carts with a variety of fruits and vegetables—and let's leave the hot dogs and pepperoni pizzas behind. When we go out to dinner with friends, let's order a veggie burger or spaghetti with marinara, but forget the meatballs. And when we're looking for a quick snack, make it trail mix or an apple, not cheese puffs.

Scientific evidence shows that people who follow a plant-based diet require fewer doctor visits, fewer operations, and fewer prescriptions. If GM workers would choose a tofu veggie scramble over sausage and eggs, and a bean burrito over a meaty taco, not only could it trim GM's sticker prices and save jobs, but it would drastically improve their health and put them at a lower risk of developing diabetes and other diet-related illnesses that are plaguing Americans.

A healthy plant-based diet also can help people who already have type 2 diabetes manage the disease, and it can even reduce or eliminate the need for medications. Studies have shown that a low-fat vegan diet works better than the standard diabetes diet to lower blood sugar and cholesterol, cause weight loss, and decrease the risk of diabetes complications.

Any menu change takes a little getting used to, but most people would rather change their eating habits than spend a fortune on expensive drugs and risk losing their jobs. To help workers make the switch, GM should provide more healthful meal options in the cafeteria, along with nutrition information and incentives employees need to commit to a healthier diet.

There was once a saying: "What's good for GM is good for America." This has never been so true. If employees across the country eat healthier and shape up, it will help refuel the auto industry and get American industries back on track. And it will lead the nation away from chronic disease and instead down the road to lifelong good health.

Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E., a nurse practitioner in Southfield, Mich., is director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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