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Eating Our Way to Disease

Posted on Jul 9, 2017

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

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In July 1976, the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Sen. George McGovern, held hearings titled “Diet Related to Killer Diseases.” The committee heard from physicians, scientists and nutritionists on the relationship between the American diet and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Six months later, the committee released “The Dietary Goals for the United States,” which quickly came to be known as the McGovern Report. “Decrease consumption of meat,” the report urged Americans. “Decrease consumption of butter fat [dairy fat], eggs, and other high cholesterol sources.”

“The simple fact is that our diets have changed radically within the last 50 years …,” McGovern said when the report was released. “These dietary changes represent as great a threat to public health as smoking. Too much fat, too much sugar or salt, can be and are linked directly to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and stroke, among other killer diseases. In all, six of the ten leading causes of death in the United States have been linked to our diet. Those of us within our government have an obligation to acknowledge this.”

The response to the report was swift and brutal. The meat, egg and dairy industries lobbied successfully to have the document withdrawn. They orchestrated new hearings, supplying a list of 24 experts approved by the National Livestock and Meat Board, so that, in the words of Wray Finney, then the president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association, the public would get “a balanced, correct view of this whole matter.” A new report was released in December 1977. This second edition insisted that “meat, poultry and fish are an excellent source of essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals.” The Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs was abolished. Its functions were taken over by the Agriculture Committee. “The Agriculture Committee looks after the producers of food, not the consumers, and particularly, not the most needy,” wrote The New York Times. And when Sen. McGovern, who had already angered the Democratic and Republican leaderships with his 1972 insurgent campaign for the presidency, was up for re-election in South Dakota in 1980, he was defeated by James Abdnor, a cattle rancher and well-funded spokesman for the meat industry.

To see other Truthdig articles about veganism, diet or the animal agriculture industry, click here, here, here and here.

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Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn—whose documentary “Cowspiracy,” about the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry, led me to become a vegan—recently released a new film, “What the Health,” which looks at how highly processed animal products are largely responsible for the increase of chronic and lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the United States and many other countries. Both films are available on Netflix.

The companion book, also titled “What the Health,” written by my wife, Truthdig Book Editor Eunice Wong, lays out in even greater detail how the animal agriculture industry intimately joins with the pharmaceutical industry, the medical industry, health organizations and government agencies to mask and perpetuate the disastrous effects of animal products on our health. The animal agriculture industry, like the fossil fuel industry or any other branch of the corporate state, profits at the expense of our health and even our lives. Many corporations and our government have a lot invested in keeping us sick.

“We sometimes joke that when you’re doing a clinical trial, there are two possible disasters,” one biotech stock analyst told The New York Times. “The first disaster is if you kill people. The second disaster is if you cure them. … The truly good drugs are the ones you can use chronically for a long, long time.”

In the book “What the Health,” Wong writes, “The public’s willingness to endure lifelong pharmaceutical use is called, in industry lingo, ‘compliance.’ And we are compliant. In 2014, the US spent $374 billion on pharmaceuticals. That’s more than the combined gross national products of New Zealand and Bangladesh. It’s also well over 200 percent of what the US federal government spent on education in 2015.”

For long excerpts from the book “What the Health,” click here. For the trailer of the documentary movie of the same title, click here.

Corporations invest heavily to promote the nation’s unhealthful diet. “The meat, egg, and dairy industries,” economist David Robinson Simon says in an interview in the book, “spent, in one year, at least $138 million lobbying Congress alone.”

“It’s money well spent for these industries,” Wong writes. “A $1 industry contribution usually results in a $2,000 return as federal subsidy payments.”

“You have a $5 billion stent industry,” Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a renowned cardiologist, says in the book. (A stent is a permanent wire mesh inserted into an artery to prop it open.) “A $35 billion statin [cholesterol-lowering] drug industry. They don’t want that to go away. Look, if I’m in the middle of a heart attack, there’s no question that I want a man or a woman with great expertise in stents by my side. They will save my life and a lot of my heart muscle. But the 90 percent of stents being done electively? There is zero evidence that you can prolong life or protect against a future heart attack with stents.”

“Of every US federal income tax dollar in 2015, 28.7 cents went to healthcare,” Wong writes. “That’s the biggest single chunk of the dollar, larger now even than the military (25.4 cents). Compare that to 3.6 cents for education, and 1.6 cents on the environment. Talk about priorities. And yet for all that healthcare spending, the US has the lowest life expectancy among 12 high-income nations, and some of the worst health outcomes.”

Early in the film, a news broadcast announces, “The World Health Organization this morning has classified processed meat, such as bacon and sausage, as carcinogenic, directly involved in causing cancer in humans. …”

Andersen discovers that processed meat has been classified by the cancer agency of the WHO as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with tobacco, asbestos and plutonium.

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