You probably don't need anyone to tell you that Americans are losing the battle of the bulge. Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and obesity rates among children have tripled in the past 30 years. The problem is so alarming that earlier this year, a nonprofit group called Mission: Readiness, fronted by senior retired military leaders, issued a report titled "Too Fat to Fight," which concluded that 27 percent of all young adults "are too fat to serve in the military."
So it's heartening to see that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new dietary guidelines take aim at the obesity epidemic in part by recommending a shift toward a plant-based diet. Going vegetarian (or better yet, vegan) is a proven way to lose weight--and keep it off--as well as to improve your overall health.
In its new report, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee calls obesity "the single greatest threat to public health in this century." Along with commonsense measures such as increasing physical activity and reducing consumption of foods containing added sugars, the report recommends eating a "more plant-based" diet. Americans are advised to consume more fruits and vegetables, beans, peas, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry and eggs.
I would suggest leaving out the meat and eggs altogether and sticking with those veggies. In a study of nearly 22,000 people, Oxford University researchers found that men who switch to a vegetarian diet are less likely to experience the yearly weight gain--and clogged arteries--that can plague middle-aged meat-eaters.
A study published in The American Journal of Medicine found that people who eat a healthy vegan diet (meaning no meat, eggs or dairy products) can lose about a pound per week--even without exercising or counting calories.
Going vegan can make a difference in other ways too. Heart disease, strokes and other health problems cost Americans billions of dollars every year. But research has consistently shown that going vegetarian or vegan can reduce the risk for these ailments. The American Dietetic Association reviewed hundreds of studies and concluded that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and hypertension.
If going vegan seems daunting, then take some baby steps. Last year, Sir Paul McCartney launched the "Meat-Free Monday" campaign, and people all over the world have committed to consuming no meat (and in many cases, no animal foods at all) at least one day a week.
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman suggests the "Vegan Before 6" (VB6) plan. He eats only plant foods--vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains--until 6 p.m. and then eats whatever he wants at dinnertime. "Within three or four months" of starting VB6, Bittman says, "I lost 35 pounds, my blood sugar was normal, cholesterol levels were again normal ". All these good things happened, and it wasn't as if I was suffering, so I stayed with it."
With so many vegan cookbooks, blogs, online recipes and other resources available, there's really no reason not to at least try cutting back on animal foods.
How we eat, and what we eat, has a real impact on our bodies. We all know this. While the USDA's new dietary guidelines aren't that much different from recommendations issued 30 years ago, one thing has changed: The growing mountain of evidence linking our overweight, sedentary lifestyles to disease--coupled with skyrocketing medical costs--means that we can no longer afford to ignore this sound advice.
Chris Holbein is the manager of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) Special Projects Division, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.