One of the best things to ever happen to public health happened this month when Oprah Winfrey announced she was starting a 21-day vegan makeover. If anyone can inspire positive change in America, it's someone as influential as Oprah.
The healthy vegan diet, which is free of meat, chicken, eggs, dairy and other animal products - but rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans - is finally coming into its own.
Two irreverent vegan advice books, Skinny Bitch and Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, have both scored big on the best-seller lists. And they're hardly the only meat-free books flying off the shelves. Quantum Health, which promotes the three-week diet makeover that Oprah is following, recently hit No. 2 on Amazon.
Every few months, we hear of a new celebrity or sports star who's ditching meat. (Last month, it was Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers.) Vegan story lines have worked their way into episodes of "Boston Legal" and other top TV shows. The most conservative newspapers in the country offer columns on how to work more vegetarian foods into one's diet. Even Dunkin Donuts is offering soymilk at some locations.
What's going on? Have we reached a critical mass - where the average American might consider trying a vegan or vegetarian diet? As a dietitian, I certainly hope so.
For decades, nutrition experts have known that the healthiest diet is one that's free of saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fiber and other helpful compounds found in plant food. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet - from lower rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes to less risk of several cancers. Vegetarians are even at lower risk of gallstones, kidney stones, and osteoporosis.
And though an ever-growing number of Americans have been lucky enough to discover the power of a healthy vegan diet, the information has largely been a well-kept secret.
Medical schools notoriously do not offer much in the way of nutrition education so many doctors are woefully uninformed about how helpful a vegan diet can be. Government food policies are skewed in favor of the powerful meat and dairy industries. Consumer advertising overwhelmingly promotes meat, sugar, and unhealthy processed foods.
Fortunately, change is in the air. As WebMD reported this January, trend spotters have declared 2008 "The Year of Ethical Eating." Part it has to do with health. As middle-aged baby boomers begin to deal with life-threatening chronic diseases, they are more interested in using diet to reverse those conditions. Part of it has to do with the multitude of delicious vegetarian options now widely available. And part of it has to do with a growing consciousness about food - where it comes from, how it's produced, and how it affects our environment and animal well-being.
Popular books like Fast Food Nation have opened our eyes to the truth about the food industry. Food activists like Alice Waters have taught us the benefit of eating locally. And a recent undercover investigation at a California slaughterhouse exposed the cruelty that is endemic to the meat industry.
Former Vice Presdient Al Gore got everyone concerned about global warming, but it took a United Nations report to reveal that livestock production is actually responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all the world's vehicles and airplanes combined. And now we face a global food crisis, one that could be greatly alleviated by a reduction in resource-intensive meat production.
Here's to Oprah and those of her fans who are trying the diet makeover. You couldn't have picked a better time to go vegan.
SUSAN LEVIN is a staff dietitian with the nonprofit vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 5100 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20016; e-mail slevinpcrm.org.