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The Skinny on our Growing Girth

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As the high cost of health care was debated this week in the nation that was once the most powerful on Earth and is now just the fattest, two announcements were made. Time showed a slab of meat on its cover and declared, "The real cost of cheap food" (meat, in particular) costs Americans big-time when it comes to our health. And KFC--whose suppliers have been caught on camera breaking chickens' legs and wings and scalding the birds to death in order to produce "cheap" chicken--came out with a new "sandwich" that substitutes fried chicken parts for bread and is stuffed with artery-clogging and waistline-expanding bacon and cheese. Why would KFC executives decide to do that? For the same reason that there is a Whopper and a Fifth Third Burger: Because they know that people want unhealthy foods almost as much as they want health care.

Also this week, the fat hit the pan over PETA's pro-vegetarian billboard in Jacksonville, Florida, which read, "Save the Whales. Cut the Blubber. Go Vegetarian," and led to the PETA website where people could download our free "Vegetarian Starter Kit" as well as take the "30-Day Veg Pledge." There wasn't a peep about the advertisements for meals that spell death to one million animals per hour and that contribute to our nation's ever-expanding waistlines. There were no angry phone calls and blog messages about the audacity of the purveyors of the chicken and cheese that is turning humans into blubbery masses, or..."whales."

America's obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America's Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait. Only three percent of the population has a medical condition that genuinely prevents them from losing weight. The rest of the obese people hiding behind them are obese because they shovel in food and haven't a clue (or don't want to have a clue) about a healthy diet. They haven't listened to or perhaps haven't heard the polite admonitions from health experts (real ones) urging them to eat their fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts and beans. So America is getting fatter, largely because we don't realize that killing animals and squeezing the cheese out of them, perhaps especially the cheese, is slowly killing us too.

A study published last year in the journal Obesity found that if current trends continue, nearly 90 percent of adults will be overweight or obese by the year 2030 and the number of overweight children will double. This is a serious health crisis: Research has shown that higher body mass index is associated with a greater risk of premature death from all causes. For example, according to the American Heart Association, obesity contributes to heart disease, America's number one killer. What's more, one out of every six health-care dollars will be spent on costs related to our growing girth.

Going meat-free can make a huge difference. Studies show that vegetarians are, on average, 10 to 20 pounds lighter than meat-eaters and that a vegetarian diet reduces our risk of heart disease by 40 percent and adds seven or more years to our lifespan. A study published in The American Journal of Medicine found that people who eat a low-fat vegan diet (no meat, no eggs and no dairy foods) lose about a pound per week--even without exercising or counting calories.

PETA's billboard was fueled by a healthy respect for all the animals who are raised cruelly and killed in painful ways as well as for our own species's potential to be kind and healthy. I read the communiqués from fat people who said "thank you" and from those who told us where we can go. To all the people considering gastric bypass or tummy-tuck surgery or who tried a low-carb diet and only got constipation and bad breath in return, I say, just try it: Choose the oatmeal with Silk soy milk instead of bacon and milk; the bean instead of the beef burrito; and the mushrooms, tomatoes and peppers instead of the meat balls. All animals would thank you for it if they could, and I'm betting that you will feel better, both inside and out.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. Her latest book is The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.

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