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Editorial: Lessons That Last

Recently, while traveling in the Midwest to give a series of lectures, I stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. A heavyset man walked in. The hostess knew him and warmly asked how he was doing. “Well, I’m above the grass!” he said. He was to have his fifth chemotherapy treatment the next day. It’s a precautionary step, he said, in case any of the cancer cells have spread. She seated him at a table, and a few minutes later a friend joined him. He once again said, “Well, I’m above the grass!” and went through the same details.

I found myself thinking about how common and devastating cancer is. About the hopes we have for medical treatment, and about how few people realize that the foods we eat play a role in our risk.

The server arrived to take their order. And the man said, “I’ll have the shredded beef burrito with extra shredded beef.” He repeated it: “Extra shredded beef.” The poor man had probably been told that he needed extra protein to fight cancer, and had no idea how foods can influence cancer survival.

For dinner that evening, I was on the road and pressed for time, so I picked up a submarine sandwich. The server was surprised that I wanted only veggies—and no meat or cheese. “I couldn’t live without meat,” he said. So I gently pointed out that there are many advantages to getting away from meat. Given that he had more than a few extra pounds, I thought the idea might have some appeal.

“I’ve been eating a lot of turkey,” he said, “And I’ve actually lost 60 pounds.” I was impressed, until he added, “Of course, I also had a gastric bypass.”  

Throughout my upbringing, I ate very much as these men ate. Meat was front and center on the plate, and a meatless meal was hard to imagine. What I have found surprising, though, is that most people continue to eat that way today. Despite the wealth of research studies linking a meaty diet to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes—not to mention grotesque cruelty to animals, water pollution, and global climate change—most people remain undeterred.

girl with orangesThe problem is early learning. By the time children reach their 10th birthdays, most have developed the eating habits they will carry through the rest of their lives. Government programs that provide food to schools ensure that children are well acquainted with chicken nuggets, burgers, and cheese pizza. Schools have no requirement to serve even a single meatless meal, and any school that does so gets no help from the federal government.

As a result, one in five children is now overweight, and two-thirds will be overweight as adults. One in three will develop diabetes in his or her life. Cancer will strike nearly half of all males and one-third of all females.

This year, Congress will debate the Child Nutrition Act, which determines the foods that schools serve. It should insist that schools help children get to know healthful choices, whether they are veggie burgers, beans and rice, veggie chili, or simple fruits and vegetables. And Congress should make these foods available and affordable.

Members of Congress are hearing from lobbyists from the meat, dairy, and junk-food industries. They need to hear from parents, teachers, school food service workers, and students themselves. Members of Congress can be reached at 202-224-3121. Let me encourage you to call to ask that vegetarian meals be required—and funded—in schools. And visit to sign our congressional petition. If children do not learn healthful eating in school, they may never learn it at all.

Neal Barnard signature
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

By the time children reach their 10th birthdays, most have developed the eating habits they will carry through the rest of their lives.

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