The USDA’s latest figures show that Americans are continuing to turn away from meat. Meat consumption reached a high of 201.5 pounds per capita in 2004 but has dropped steadily since then, reaching 181.5 pounds in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available. The last time meat intake was at this level was 1983. These figures show that the average American is consuming 20 pounds less meat each year, compared to a decade ago.
In the post-World-War-II era, meat intake rose steadily. It began to decline a decade ago in the face of concerns about health, animal welfare, and the environment, as well as the ready availability of healthier foods.
Skipping meat has many advantages. People who avoid meat are thinner than meat-eaters. In a 2009 study published by the American Diabetes Association, meat-eaters had an average body mass index (BMI) of 28.8, well above 25.0, the upper limit for a healthful weight. But people who avoided animal products had an average BMI of 23.6. Avoiding meat also cuts the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease and improves blood pressure.
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This week, Michelle Obama celebrates her 50th birthday. While we honor the occasion and also congratulate her on years of hard work with the Let’s Move campaign, news of her big day comes alongside news regarding diminished school lunch standards and reports of junk-food marketing in schools. It’s impossible not to wonder—how many of today’s kids will be healthy when they reach 50?
Michelle Obama by Joyce N. Boghosian, White House photographer
More than one-third of children are overweight or obese, putting them at an increased risk for a whole host of problems: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and even cancer. These kids are our future. But when we see what school lunches really look like, the future starts to seem grim. The First Lady has certainly made momentous efforts to draw attention to this issue, but we have yet to see the changes necessary to subdue the rising tide of childhood obesity.
We’re starting to see a generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. That said, it’s not too late for action. There are many ways governments, schools, and parents can team up to get things back on track. But let’s start by getting processed meat out of school lunches. It’s an easy change with a big impact. There are so many other versatile and cholesterol-free options—beans, quinoa, and legumes. Processed meat is strongly linked with colorectal cancer, and the cholesterol and saturated fat contribute to cardiovascular troubles. There are many more steps that need be taken, but getting the worst out of school lunches is a key first step.
Michelle Obama has both the power and the responsibility to take a stand and change our nation’s future for the better. Let’s hope that as the party winds down and the guests go home, our government commits to making sure every child has the nutrition resources necessary to see 50, and many decades beyond in the best of health.