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Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013, 10:17 a.m.
Commentary / Health

Vegan diet could save my state and yours

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker has just become U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, by a comfortable margin. Those of us involved with public health issues are hopeful that Sen. Booker can inspire others to make healthier food choices, much as his efforts at rejuvenating Newark have become a model for the nation. He is, after all, now the country's most popular vegetarian senator.
A vegetarian for about two decades, Booker has not shied away from discussing his food choices. Just like his commitment to public service has already led him to engage in high-profile efforts to draw attention to social issues, his diet could become an example to people in New Jersey and across the country. If enough New Jerseyans emulate him, his home state could join some of those with the lowest heart disease rates, such as Colorado and Hawaii, as well as the senator's new home, the District of Columbia.
As a dietitian and workplace wellness expert, I have seen firsthand the effects of the standard American diet packed with animal products, saturated fats, and cholesterol on individuals and families. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26.5 million adult Americans -- about 11.5 percent of the population -- are currently diagnosed with heart disease. This largely preventable affliction is responsible for about 600,000 deaths in the United States each year. People across the country, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi and my home state of Alabama - some of the states with the highest rates of heart disease - may also want to follow Booker's example and adopt a heart-healthy, plant-based diet.
Even for those who have already developed heart disease, there's room for hope. A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people could improve their chances of survival by improving their eating habits after a heart attack; specifically, a diet lowest in red and processed meat products and highest in whole grains, fruits and vegetables lowered the risk of death from heart disease by 40 percent.
Cholesterol is found only in animal products, which are also the main source of saturated fats. We know that a high-fiber, low-fat, plant-based diet can lessen heart disease risk, but it can also fight obesity, lower blood pressure, and prevent and even reverse diabetes. Vegetarian diets are generally low in saturated fats, high in fiber and vitamins, and packed with protective phytochemicals - which can reduce risk for developing cancers of the colon, breast, ovaries and prostate.
Simply put, vegetarian diets can also help people live longer. In a new study in The Lancet Oncology, Dr. Dean Ornish found that telomeres, markers of health and longevity at the ends of our chromosomes, were found to lengthen among men who adopted a low-fat, plant-based diet, showing that vegetarian diets may actually slow the aging process.
By 2030, every U.S. taxpayer could be paying $244 each year for heart failure expenses. But by promoting plant-based policies, he can help Americans avoid this looming $70 billion toll -- and the billions that will be spent on other diseases resulting from America's meaty, cheesy diet. Plant-based diets are also a boon for American businesses. Clinical studies I've conducted with my Physicians Committee colleagues have found that workplace wellness programs not only improve overall nutrition for employees -- they boost workplace productivity.
We could save millions of lives and billions of dollars each year -- important improvements that are easy to accomplish through modest diet and lifestyle changes. A vegan diet is a good model for those of us who are interested in preventing and reversing chronic diseases and lessening taxpayer burden. That's something upon which everyone, across the country and on either side of the aisle, should agree.
Susan Levin is the director of nutrition education for the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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