Confronting Corruption and Cholesterol in Congress

In response to the recent school shooting in Oregon, the President made a stark and important point. He said that we are coming to just accept that shootings will happen at schools, and, in fact, we can’t get even the mildest gun control measure through Congress. “We should be ashamed,” he said, and he was right.

Instead of a meaningful efforts to stop gun violence, the debate is routinely sidelined by, say, measures to stop people with diagnosed mental illnesses from having guns, as if that sort of limitation is all it would take to protect children.

I immediately thought about how similar this situation is to other threats to children. Young people are developing obesity, diabetes and heart disease at alarming rates. But just as legislators can’t even whisper that school shootings could be curbed by “gun control,” they dare not mention that childhood ill health is related to meat- and cheese-heavy diets. The nutrition debate gets sidelined by debates over sodas and a lack of exercise.

The word “corruption” comes to mind. We have elected leaders who don’t dare cross the mob that could oust them from power, whether it’s the National Rifle Association or the National Restaurant Association. They cower in understandable fear, and come up with excuses for whatever horrible product at hand is causing lives to be cut short.

One in three children in the US will develop diabetes at some point in life, cutting more than a decade from their lives. One in three children is overweight or obese, increasing their risk for a long list of chronic diseases including many cancers. And one in three kids between ages 9 and 11 already has high or borderline high cholesterol. Checkups at the pediatrician’s office are becoming more like middle-age adult doctor’s visits, with cholesterol tests and even statin prescriptions.

Like school shootings, many treat these rising disease rates as a fact of modern life. But not only are these diseases preventable—we already know how to prevent them.

We’ve long known that diets high in meat and dairy products lead to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. A new study just made it even more clear that red and processed meats are linked to various forms of cancer. Another new report shows us how to undo this damage, explaining that fruits, vegetables, and natural soy products can significantly reduce the risk of many forms of cancer. And we already know that these and other plant foods can help fight obesity and heart disease.

This new report urges health care professionals and others to use the precautionary principle when it comes to nutrition. Since we have convincing evidence that meat and dairy products cause disease, and that vegetables and other plant foods fight it, we should incorporate this knowledge into every nutrition policy, every school’s menu, and every meal we put on the family dinner table.

This new study and research are presented at the same time that we’re debating school lunch nutrition standards. The standards being proposed—increasing whole grains, limiting sodium, and upping fruits and vegetables—are a step in the right direction. But they don’t go far enough. For example, they still allow processed meats like hot dogs to appear in lunch lines, even though convincing evidence links them to colorectal cancer. And they still allow too much saturated fat.

Saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. If this seems like a concern only for adults, the fact is that most children’s arteries already show early signs of heart disease. Beef, chicken, and most other animal products are loaded with saturated fat. They’re also packed with cholesterol—yet they’re on school menus every day of the week.

Can you imagine the school bus pulling up to your child’s stop full of smoke as the driver puffs away on a Marlboro Light? Parents would never allow this. So why are we still serving up loads of disease-causing foods on school lunch trays?

I encourage lawmakers, parents, teachers, and students to use the precautionary principle on the Hill, at home, and in school lunch lines. Education is a continuous process—once we learn something, we should use that information to our advantage and to benefit society as a whole.

It’s time to confront corruption in Congress head on and move plant-based fare to the center of our plates—and to the center of nutrition policy.