Editorial: The Price Tag for America’s Meaty Diet
Here in Washington, Congress is agonizing over how to cover America’s health care costs. With over $2 trillion going for doctors, drugs, hospital care, and related expenses every year, there’s no easy way to spread the costs around.
The real question, though, is how to cut them down to a manageable size. The fact is, just as some people have bought homes or cars they cannot afford, we are using more medical care than we can afford. The reason is not so mysterious: We are an unhealthy country.
A report in the May 2009 Diabetes Care, published by the American Diabetes Association, showed what everyone knew but few wanted to admit. Meat-eaters are an unhealthy lot. Researcher Serena Tonstad and her colleagues at Loma Linda University compared meat-eaters to people who avoid all animal products and to everyone in between: semi-vegetarians, pesco-vegetarians, and ovo-lacto-vegetarians. The meat-eaters were heavier—with an average body mass index of 28.8 (over 25 is considered overweight), compared with a healthy 23.6 for vegans. And 7.6 percent of meat-eaters had been diagnosed with diabetes—compared with only 2.9 percent of people who steered clear of all animal products.
Those differences quickly translate into dollars and cents. A typical person with diabetes uses $3,000 to $5,000 worth of medications each year. These include drugs to control blood sugar and, because diabetes puts the heart at risk, drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Bills for doctors, hospitals, and medical supplies add to the burden.
It’s not just overweight and diabetes. Meat-eaters are also at higher risk for heart disease, hypertension, gallbladder disease, some forms of cancer, and many other illnesses, all of which are expensive to treat, aside from their personal costs.
Just as smoking is an unhealthy habit that necessitates medical care, meat-eating should be thought of in the same way. In addition to all its other unsavory features, the meat industry is driving up America’s health care costs.
This is not to say that vegans have no health risks. Serious illness can strike even those who follow perfectly healthful diets. But the fact is, if your insurance group is mainly composed of meat-eaters, you have many more tickets in the disease lottery than you have if your group steers clear of the meat habit. Needless to say, nearly every insurance group in America is composed of people who indulge in meaty diets on a daily basis.
Most people recognize that vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful choices, in addition to being friendly to animals and the environment. But it’s time to look at things the other way around. A meat habit is dangerous, greatly increasing the risk of disease and hiking up our health care costs.
Like the tobacco industry, the meat industry has enjoyed favorable treatment from the federal government in the form of generous subsidies designed to keep meat on the American dinner table. But now that the bill has arrived, it is time to rethink our national priorities. As Congress considers various ways to contain out-of-control medical bills, it must also address the causes of illness.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM