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Neal Barnard, M.D. Headshot

More Drugs? How About Less Bacon?

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Seven million Britons already take cholesterol-lowering drugs, and if the government has its way, that number could double. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that statin drugs be prescribed to people whose risk of heart problems is only modestly elevated.

Statins lower cholesterol levels. But they also have side effects, causing liver and muscle problems, increasing the risk of type two diabetes and triggering sporadic memory problems that can sometimes be disabling.

The fact is, roughly 90% of people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs do not really need them. Their cholesterol problem is caused by the cholesterol and animal fat in the foods they eat. If they were to eliminate animal products and other fatty foods from their diets, the problem would vanish for the vast majority.

Meats - including poultry and fish - contain saturated fats that stimulate the liver to produce cholesterol. Although skinless chicken has a healthier reputation than beef, it is not actually much lower in fat. About 29% of the calories in lean beef come from fat. For skinless chicken breast, that number drops only to 23%, while beans, vegetables, fruits and grains are nearly fat-free.

A head-to-head study of a plant-based diet and a statin drug carried out by the University of Toronto showed that both lowered cholesterol levels to a similar degree in four weeks' time.

But a plant-based diet goes even further. Studies by Dr Dean Ornish and others have shown that a plant-based diet, along with a healthy lifestyle, actually reopens narrowed arteries and dramatically reduces the risk of heart attacks. And all of its "side effects" are good ones - lower bodyweight, lower blood pressure and lower risk of diabetes - changes that add an extra layer of protection for the heart.

But pushing statins - as practiced by doctors and eagerly accepted by many patients - ignores unhealthy habits and uses drugs as a stop-gap measure.

Aside from the side effects of medications, overprescribing depletes health-care revenues that are needed elsewhere. Need an X-ray for your broken shoulder? Or perhaps an MRI to evaluate worrisome brain symptoms? It's harder to afford these things when the money has all been spent on statin drugs - which would not be necessary if people got the animal products off their plates.

If we take care of our health by avoiding animal products, we can let the health-care system deal with those conditions for which drugs and doctors are really necessary.

Even though changing harmful eating habits may seem a hard pill to swallow at first, it's important that people hear the facts. Teaching children to become addicted to chicken and beef means we are fast becoming a nation of Billy Bunters wobbling our way towards the coronary care ward, something that can be avoided when parents adopt smarter food choices.

Overweight children tend to become overweight adults, at risk for heart disease and all the other ailments stemming from extra pounds. Children as young as three are showing signs of clogged arteries, and paediatricians are reporting an alarming increase in the number of children with type two diabetes as well. As more patients undergo expensive operations and are prescribed cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, the resulting financial burden could pose an enormous challenge to the health service.

Can a crisis be averted? I believe it's possible, but only if all of us - from political leaders to the voters who elect them - take decisive action. Better eating habits and a more active lifestyle are critical. Eliminating meat from all of our diets and replacing it with wholesome plant-based foods would go a long way toward boosting the health of the nation.

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