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Vegan issues meet the health care policy debate

I have not talked about health care very much since the new US administration began. Warren Buffett has made the news with an argument that health care costs were a far bigger problem for business than corporate taxes, which are another big item on the agenda of the new administration. Unlike most economists quoted in the ACA-repeal debate, I believe personally that the current system suffers from a very large amount of unnecessary medical spending due to unnecessary illness and disease—not just unnecessary administrative costs. The other night, I went to see What the Health?, the new documentary on the perils of the standard American diet, at a local movie theatre, after a quick dinner in a vegetarian restaurant.

The movie featured doctors emphatically explaining that eating animal products made the prospects for all kinds of illness and disease much worse, contrasting their views especially with the popular “low-carb” view. It was good in getting to many of the most appalling aspects of the meat production system in the US—images of slaughtered animals, etc. It made a good case for being a vegan—perhaps especially in this country, where production is faster and more industrial than in most other wealthy countries.

The movie probably overstates the case that meat, dairy, eggs, and fish are the problem with the standard American diet, leading to obesity and high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Nutritional doctors such as Joel Fuhrman have also strongly emphasized watching out for empty calories in the form of processed foods other than meat, non-whole-grains such as white flour, white potatoes, and cooking-type and hydrogenated oils.

In positive terms, these doctors strongly recommend a diet made up of raw and steamed vegetables (especially green veggies and not many starchy ones), vegetable soups, fresh and frozen fruit, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), and a limited amount of raw nuts and seeds—and very little else. The last category has to be small as a percentage of caloric intake, not of the weight or size of what you eat. In general, one avoids highly processed foods. The diet as a whole then protects remarkably well against diseases that, as the film emphasizes, cost millions of lives each year.

In my own case, I have resolved my vegetarian concerns by becoming a vegan at the same time I started a diet of this type. (I had been a vegetarian.) Doing both meant completely eliminating animal products, rather than keeping them in the very-little-else category. Instead, for dietary splurges, I stick to small vegan deserts, etc.

I am not a medical doctor, and the above of course cannot be medical advice. Consistent with much of the information in the movie I not-surprisingly saw my cardiovascular health indicators improve and my weight and waist size plummet. There has been no “yo-yo-dieting” effect, and after about a decade, I remain about 35 pounds lighter and with a 3-inch-smaller pants size. My LDL (bad) cholesterol is consistently below 100, which Fuhrman and like-minded doctors regard as the maximum level for good health. And this is what is supposed to happen. Information on the diet can be found in Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live and on his practice’s website. So, while I was impressed with an entertaining and well-done movie, I did not find the substantive message exactly right on, given my personal experience with Fuhrman’s “nutritarian” strategy. Finally, the content of the movie suggests another angle on a seemingly impossible policy issue, health care spending. The latter is after all the real long-term deficit issue.

The showing of the movie was sponsored by a vegan animal welfare organization called Catskill (New York) Animal Sanctuary.

 

 

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