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One Simple Change for Health and for the Environment

By Camille Labchuk

What if you knew that making one simple change to your diet could substantially reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and a whole host of other diseases? What if this one simple change could save our healthcare system billions per year? What if we could save millions of people from getting sick in the first place, instead of focusing on treating them after they become ill?

The truth is, all of the diseases mentioned above are linked closely with consuming meat and other animal products. And by cutting these products out of our diet – opting instead to eat plant-based foods – we can take a bite of the human toll of many preventable diseases.

For as long as most of us can remember, we’ve been inundated with the message that eating meat and drinking milk are both natural and necessary for us to grow into healthy, strong adults. Government-issued food pyramids have reflected this apparent wisdom, and the animal agriculture industry has spent billions of dollars marketing meat, dairy, and eggs to consumers.

But in recent years, there has been a growing understanding that animal food products aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As the scientific evidence piles up, many in the medical community have realized that consuming animal products is not only unnecessary for human health, it’s also harmful. The research clearly and comprehensively shows the health benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption. Armed with this knowledge, more and more people are choosing to either cut out animal products completely by going vegan, or substantially reduce their intake of these products.

Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is a powerful way to protect against heart disease, strokes, cancer, and diabetes — which claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of Canadians every year. Vegetarians have lower rates of cancer than non-vegetarians, and a recent Oxford University health study has shown that consuming meat is responsible for more than 45,000 premature deaths each year in the United Kingdom. That’s approximately 31,000 deaths due to heart disease, 9,000 cancer-related deaths and 5,000 deaths from strokes.

According to the American Dietetic Association, a comprehensive, evidence-based review shows that well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are not only associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, but also lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer. The evidence is overwhelming. Eating meat greatly increases the risk of heart disease and death, while reducing or eliminating meat from our diets can prevent and even reverse heart disease.

Vegans also have much lower rates of obesity, and on average weigh 10% less than non-vegetarians. In addition to looking slimmer, being lighter reduces the risk of a myriad of health problems including respiratory problems, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

With all of the evidence piling up, it’s no surprise that plant-based diets are on the rise. Even former US President Bill Clinton has adopted a nearly vegan diet for health reasons – after undergoing heart surgery in recent years. But health isn’t the only reason to give up animal-based foods – a vegetarian or vegan diet also causes less suffering to animals, and protects the environment. According to the UN, the animal agriculture industry causes more emissions than the entire transportation sector combined. It’s also responsible for billions of tons of soil, water, and air pollution. On top of that, animals raised in factory farms are kept in crowded, filthy, and stressful conditions, undergo painful mutilations, and often undergo extreme suffering during slaughter.

Giving up meat, dairy, and eggs could help Canadians live longer and experience less disease. It’s also better for the animals, and the environment. It’s time to start a national conversation on how to bring more attention to the link between eating animal products and poor human health outcomes.

Camille Labchuk represents Ontario on the Green Party’s Federal Council and formerly worked as leader Elizabeth May’s press secretary. She is currently studying law at the University of Toronto.

Also in the Winter 2012 Issue of An Ounce …

Published: February 3, 2012