As a doctor, I would like to call for a reality check.
Decades ago, we learned that the fat and cholesterol in meat boost the amount of cholesterol in consumers' blood. And that leads to heart attacks. So doctors advised us to cut back on meat and get to know vegetables.
Then it was carcinogens. As meat is grilled, cancer-causing chemicals called heterocyclic amines form on its surface, suggesting an explanation for the higher cancer rates in meat-eaters, compared with vegetarians. Chicken turned out to produce much higher levels of carcinogens than beef.
Then it was chemicals. Studies showed that mercury, other heavy metals, and various pesticides show up in animal tissues. Suddenly, fish was our worst nightmare: State and federal monitoring agencies issued strong warnings, especially for children and for women in their reproductive years. Vegetables could be washed or peeled, but that wasn't possible with fish or other meats.
Then it was germs. Salmonella and campylobacter from the meat counter ended up on our kitchen counters and caused thousands of cases of illness every year. The bacterial threat reached a new level when E. coli O157:H7 in hamburgers killed diners at the Jack-in-the-Box chain in the Pacific Northwest. These and other dangerous uninvited guests still turn up routinely on beef, poultry and shellfish. And government agencies spend millions of dollars trying to contain the problem.
The headlines went a step further. Mad cow disease emerged in Europe and sporadically in North American cattle. It is not caused by fat, cholesterol, carcinogens or germs, but by a rogue protein, known as a prion. Government and industry officials spend millions on testing and culling operations, and neurological researchers study the relationships between mad cow disease and rare forms of dementia. Meanwhile, scientists might observe that there is no mad asparagus or mad eggplant disease.
And there is no strawberry flu or avocado flu, either. But bird flu has emerged as a potential pandemic. Birds carry viruses, just as other animals do. Ordinarily they would pose no risk to humans. But our collective appetite for poultry - Americans now eat more than one million chickens per hour - means that enormous flocks of chickens, turkeys and other birds are raised for meat. Once the H5N1 virus enters a poultry farm, it
And now, to kill some of the germs that come from an animal's intestinal tract and land on a piece of meat containing saturated fat and cholesterol, we need to spray the meat with viruses.
It's time to wake up and smell the problem. Millions of Americans now say no to meat. As they do so, their cholesterol levels plummet. Their coronary arteries open up again. Their waistlines shrink, and their cancer rates drop 40 percent. A healthy vegetarian diet could revolutionize the health of the nation.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. This piece was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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