Campaign says retreat from meat for a day

`Health is focus' in schools' effort

April 23, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

"Monday, Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way ... "

- John Phillips

Pick a day, any day, really. For folks bent on public impact, the day is a question of alliterative appeal, a quest for something snappy to break through a cacophony of nutrition and health studies.

The tag line of this national campaign, then, is "Meatless Monday," although the folks at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health would be just as happy if you set aside Tuesday or Thursday to eschew beef for some alternative, perhaps taking a moment to consider the advantages of foodstuffs that never walked the earth.

Hopkins is taking the lead with 28 other schools of public health to press a simple message: For the sake of health, eat a bit less meat. There's nothing radical here. There's no extreme deprivation, nothing complicated or especially new, really, except the slogan and the packaging.

"Health is the focus," says Sid Lerner, who chairs the campaign, the goal of which is to reduce consumption of saturated fat by at least 15 percent by 2010.

The Meatless Monday Web site featuring recipes, celebrity testimonials, health tips and coupons just went up this month, the effort's first volley in what is planned as a sustained public-education campaign. The project also will offer grants to graduate students who design community-education projects, with particular effort made toward reaching low-income people.

Lerner, a former advertising man - he says he worked on the old "Mr. Whipple" toilet-paper campaign - joined this effort as he became more concerned about his own rising blood pressure. He was working on another project with Hopkins and pursued the possibility of a public-education effort, bearing in mind a mantra: Keep it simple, stupid.

"One message is clear," says Lerner. "We eat too much meat, not enough fruit and vegetables. Meat has made itself the center of every plate we see these days."

With food, exactly how much of anything is too much is not always easily established. When the question involves the connection between nutrition and health, things can get especially murky.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting average cholesterol consumption to 300 milligrams a day for healthy people, 200 milligrams for those with a history of heart disease. That means keeping an eye on consumption of animal products - dairy, eggs, meat - that contain cholesterol. Fruit, vegetables, grains and any other foods from plants contain no cholesterol.

A 3-ounce cooked serving of red meat, for example, contains about 80 milligrams of cholesterol. The same amount of skinless chicken breast contains 70; the same portion of fish contains between 20 and 80 milligrams, depending on the fish.

Then, of course, there's the argument that a hunk of beef contains both "bad" and "good" cholesterol - low-density lipoproteins and high-density lipoproteins, respectively - the effects of which cancel each other out to a certain degree. And some of the saturated fat in beef is stearic acid, which has beneficial effects on cholesterol.

High levels of LDL have been associated with increased heart disease risk, while high levels of HDL seem to protect against heart attack, says the American Heart Association.

For nearly a century, researchers have been trying to nail down the link between diet and heart disease, with particular focus on cholesterol and coronary heart disease. Caused by constriction of the arteries that feed the heart, coronary heart disease kills more Americans than any other single illness: about half a million men and women a year.

While no absolutely certain, direct causal link has been discovered, the weight of research connects diets low in saturated fat, which carries low-density lipoproteins, and reduced heart disease.

The Nov. 27, 2002, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association included an article by Dr. Frank B. Hu and Dr. Walter C. Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, counted among the most prominent figures in research on the link between diet and heart disease.

Their review of clinical studies found "evidence is now clear" that "significant protection against" coronary heart disease can be derived from diets relying on unsaturated fats - olive oil, canola oil, for example - whole grains and lots of fruit and vegetables. Eating this way, exercising regularly, keeping weight down and avoiding smoking "may prevent the majority of cardiovascular disease in Western populations," the article said.

Dr. Robert S. Lawrence of the Bloomberg School of Public Health says the unquestionable effectiveness of cholesterol drugs in reducing LDL and heart disease is further evidence of a connection. That point, however, raises the question of whether the effect of a drug can be equated with the effect of a diet.

"Is the drug doing something else?" Lawrence asks. Lawrence acknowledges "it's a complex story," even as the campaign he supports attempts to convey a simple message: Eat less meat.

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