Monday, May 18, 2009

Going Meat Free one day a week (at least)

Image poached from without permission

Check out this article from CNN! Hooray for Belgium (which has an amazing populations of vegans; I had the honor of speaking at a vegetarian conference there a few years back).

So, it's Thursdays in Ghent, and Mondays in the US. I sure hope that Ghent has better luck than the US in promoting it.

Here's the Meatless Monday campaign; have you ever heard of it?

It's noteworthy that the Ghent effort focuses not only on the health consequences of eating meat, but the environmental ones as well. Americans' awareness of the link between our food choices and the environment are increasing but are still behind the times.

Meatless Monday, a non-profit organization working in association with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a national public health campaign designed to help Americans prevent four of the leading causes of premature death: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. The goal of the campaign is to reduce the consumption of saturated fat in America by at least fifteen percent by 2010; its main efforts aim at encouraging people to be moderate in their eating and meal planning. Twenty-eight other public health schools across the country also support the campaign, which provides tools and resources to help Americans cut the saturated fat once a week. The effort also works towards helping people make other healthy lifestyle choices beyond just Monday.

The Meatless Monday campaign is not an anti-meat crusade or a “go vegetarian” message. Interestingly, the eschewal of the word “vegetarian” is rather absolute; the V word makes hardly an appearance on the campaign’s web site at all, in spite of the term “meatless” in the campaign title.

According to the campaign’s description, “meatless” means no beef, pork, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. Fish is acceptable, but a warning for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age is included.

The campaign also encourages other positive behaviors such as increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, not smoking, and exercising at least 30 minutes a day.

Meatless Monday is not about becoming a vegetarian one day a week; it is about cutting saturated fat significantly on that one day (by eliminating its major food sources), which will hopefully perpetuate a healthful message for the remainder of the week that eating a diet low in saturated fat is not only good for us, but that it’s not difficult and can be delicious too. But a rose by any other name smells just as sweet; if all Americans went meatless (and chose wisely too -- we're not talking about eating junk all day in place of meat) one day a week, billions of animals would be saved per year, and you can bet your booty it would make a difference in people's health.

According to researchers, the average person who cuts out meat and high-fat dairy products one day a week will reduce his or her consumption of saturated fat by 15%. (That's the amount recommended by the American Heart Association, Healthy People 2010, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA.) Thus, if people could commit to changing their less-than-stellar eating habits just once a week, it could mean a notable change in health outcomes.

Some experts may argue that once a week is not enough; why not maximize health benefits by significantly reducing saturated fat and other harmful components, every day of the week? And what about emphasizing the health-supporting foods, such as whole grains, legumes, and fresh produce? According to the American Dietetic Association's position paper on vegetarian diets, “…appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” But this statement is based on studies of healthy vegetarians who avoid meat over many years, not once a week.

“Meatless Mondays are a wonderful starting place,” says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group and co-author of the ADA’s position paper as well as The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications (2nd ed., Jones and Bartlett, 2004). “Ideally, as people get used to eliminating meat one day a week, they'll realize that meat is not a dietary essential and will move closer and closer to a vegetarian diet.”

However, one of the reasons for the success of the Meatless Mondays campaign is that it does not prescribe a vegetarian diet; unfortunately, most people are not willing to commit to this level of change. It is a game of compromise: one meatless day a week is manageable and comes with measurable health advantages; 7 days a week may turn people off to making healthy changes altogether.

But those who wish for significant disease reduction risk (particularly those attempting to reverse heart disease and related conditions) may need to take a step further for maximum benefit. “In terms of health advantages, certainly avoiding meat and eating more dried beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables one day a week is better than nothing, but I wouldn't expect to see the same health benefits that are seen in long-term vegetarians who eat this way on a daily basis,” notes Mangels. And I agree, of course.

Why Mondays, you ask? When public health experts designed the Meatless Monday campaign, they recognized the fact that adding a time factor to a message helps people to change their behavior. And Meatless Wednesday just doesn’t have the same appeal. In addition to the memorable alliteration, of course Mondays are traditionally the “start healthy eating” day. We'll have to see how Thursdays work out for Ghent.

Check out the site; there is some good info on there and nice recipes (many of which are either vegan or veganizable).

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