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Meat's Striking Out: A Baseball Player Goes Vegetarian?

By Neal Barnard

This opinion piece was published on May 21, 2008, in USA Today.

The Milwaukee Brewers' leading slugger, Prince Fielder, has gone vegetarian. Now that's news.

Late last year, the American Institute for Cancer Research told Americans that processed meats (e.g., hot dogs, salami) are a clear-cut cause of colon cancer, based on the results of 58 scientific studies. But Americans barely yawned. They continued to buy hot dogs for their kids at every ball game.

But when an athlete who hit 50 home runs last year — the best in Brewers history — decides to forgo the meat, chicken and fish, that commands attention. Fielder is a role model for his athletic prowess — and his healthy diet.

Memorial Day marks the beginning of hot dog season, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. And every year Americans buy them with abandon. By year's end, grocery stores will ring up more than 740 million packages of hot dogs.

And it's not just hot dogs, of course. Add in the 32 pounds of processed pork — bacon, sausage and ham — that each American eats annually (the figure is about 16% higher among African-Americans, a group that ends up at especially high cancer risk). Along with steaks, burgers, chicken nuggets, salmon fillets and all the other meats we can't seem to get away from, the average American eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year.

Unhealthy diet

No wonder we are not only world leaders in baseball but also have the world's highest risk of developing cancer. Americans have about an 18% probability of developing cancer before age 65, while citizens of Japan have about a 10% chance, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A person who eats 1.7 ounces of processed meats daily — that's about the size of one hot dog — has about a 20% higher risk of colorectal cancer, compared with people who do not. Two hot dogs, 40%. Three, 60%, and so on. Whether the culprit is nitrite additives, carcinogens that form during cooking, or the load of animal fat these foods deliver, processed meats are foul.

Can an athlete compete without meat? Absolutely. Just ask Scott Jurek. In 1999, Scott entered the Western States Endurance Run, a race of 100 miles. Not only did Scott win the race, he won it seven years in a row, setting the course record at 15:36:27. Scott leaves the pepperoni pizza, sausage omelets and other animal products off the menu, following an entirely vegan diet.

Athletic benefits

Researchers have found that avoiding meat apparently reduces the viscosity of the blood, lowers blood pressure, improves blood flow and boosts athletic performance. Small wonder nature's strongest "athletes" — stallions, bulls, gorillas and elephants — are vegetarians.

But hot dogs, bacon and pepperoni — these are American traditions, some might say. So was tobacco, a crop long predating Columbus' arrival on these shores. When a tradition is hurting your kids, it's time to set it aside, or at least choose the veggie dogs, which are now available at every grocery store in the USA.

Besides, the song says "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" — not buy me a glob of grease peppered with nitrates.

Ah, heck. What's the harm of just one hot dog? Or one strip of bacon? The problem is that, once they become part of our routine, the meats add up and cancer risk follows. And it's one, two, three strikes you're out.

Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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