The ballot in California's November 1994 general election included Proposition 188, an anti-smoking initiative. Among the many ads run by the tobacco lobby was one whose message was: "If you let the lifestyle police take away your right to smoke, they're going to go after your hamburgers next!" Accompanying the text was a cartoon of an innocent population, holding burgers and ice cream cones, trembling before the menace of food Nazis.The tobacco industry lost that campaign, but its comparison of smoking and meat eating is more accurate than most people realize. Scientific data on the dangers of the Standard American Diet-meat based and by definition high in fat -- is reaching critical mass in the '90s, just as research on the harmful effects of smoking started to emerge in the '60s.It's taken over 30 years -- a generation-for people to recognize cigarettes as a grave health risk and an antisocial addiction, and it could take at least as long for meat to sink to that status. But the day may come when you won't be able to buy a burger in a hospital or on a campus, except, perhaps, by advance request; when having a meat habit will be viewed with the same mixture of condescension and pity that smoking is now.Absurd? Impossible? Granted, the change won't come about because everyone wakes up one day and says, "You know, my cholesterol is too high. I think I'll eat only plant foods." Nor will it come as a result of preaching by vegetarians or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.There's only one power strong enough to force such a change in the American fabric -- economic pressure. Here's how it'll happen: the U.S. government, in alliance with the insurance industry, will increase regulation of the meat and dairy industries, restricting their advertising and going to elementary school classrooms to teach kids why a meat-based diet is unhealthy. They'll do it because they won't be able to afford not to -- the cost of not doing it is too high.Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard and John McDougall are doctors best known for their books on weight loss. They didn't start out as diet gurus but as researchers, primarily interested in heart disease. But as Ornish noted in the introduction to his book Eat More, Weigh Less (a New York Times 20-week bestseller), "If I wrote a book entitled How to Help Prevent Heart Disease, Obesity, Stroke, Breast Cancer, Prostate Cancer, Colon Cancer, Osteoporosis, Diabetes, Hypertension, and Lots of Other Illnesses, you might not read it."All three doctors noticed during the course of their studies in heart disease that when their patients or control groups stopped eating foods thought to be bad for their hearts, they lost weight -- a lot of weight. Ornish's first study, in 1977, showed that even severe coronary heart disease can be reversed by making lifestyle changes alone. It also showed that his subjects lost an average of 22 pounds the first year, even though weight loss was not their primary aim, even though the amount of food they ate and total calories they consumed was not restricted -- only the type of calories. People on McDougall's heart program usually lose six to 15 pounds per month until their trim weight is achieved.The diet programs that were initially devised by the three doctors as preventative medicine and which also proved so effective in reducing weight, were simply this: reasonably natural, low in fat (10 percent of total calories consumed), grain-based and completely vegetarian.All the doctors are either active in or run their own foundations dealing with the role of diet in personal health. Most people would be surprised to learn how much they have the ears, even the hearts and minds, of many of the most powerful people in government, industry and medicine. Barnard, author of A Physician's Slimming Guide, was instrumental in getting the USDA's food pyramid turned upside down. His years of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and his work in forming strategic alliances began paying off when the government drastically increased its recommended daily intake of whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits. Further, he got a federal advisory committee to call "the omission of vegetarian diets from past versions of the guidelines a significant oversight." (Barnard hopes to have the dietary guidelines list meat, poultry, fish and dairy products as "optional" in the next revision.)Ornish is one of President Clinton's official physicians, consulting directly with Bill and Hillary and tinkering with the White House menu (which earlier led to the resignation of the White House's French chef).The evidence linking the Standard American Diet with our country's epidemic of degenerative diseases is overwhelming. The costs are catastrophic. The physiological mechanisms are understood. The controlled studies are irrefutable. And the epidemiological data is consistent and devastating. The correlation between the incidence of breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon, kidney, testicular and pancreatic cancer, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and osteoporosis and the amount of animal protein a population consumes is a virtual match.These diseases are rare among populations that eat very little animal food and more and more prevalent as the amount increases, until they reach epidemic proportions at the level of the Standard American Diet.Genetic and environmental factors are rarely significant. The low-fat, mostly vegetarian diet eaten by most Japanese traditionally correlated with one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. When Japanese women move to the U.S. and start eating the Standard American Diet their breast cancer rate increases 400 percent. Animal fat consumption in Japan has increased 800 percent over the past 25 years. For the first time in that country's history obesity is a common problem; 10-year-old to 12-year-old Japanese boys have 75 percent higher cholesterol levels than their American counterparts. The story is the same for any ethnic group that goes from a traditional plant-based diet to one high in animal fat.Conversely, studies of Northern European countries have shown that with the severe drop in animal food consumption during World War II there was a commensurate drop in circulatory deaths.It's pretty simple to understand why. Animal foods don't give you anything you need that you can't get from plant foods, they lack many essential nutrients you can only get from plant foods and they contain many substances injurious to your health, most of which are missing from plant foods. As McDougall notes, "Animal foods lack vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber and carbohydrates [while they're high in] cholesterol and contamination by chemicals, viruses and bacteria."Very few traditional societies had diets that were completely vegetarian. Yet these groups didn't suffer from our modern plague of degenerative diseases. The problem comes with the quantity and quality of the animal foods we consume.American Indians considered meat a special-occasion dish. McDougall makes the point that modern Americans have holiday feasts not just every day but four times a day: Easter (eggs) for breakfast, Thanksgiving (turkey) for lunch, Christmas (ham) for dinner, and birthday cake and ice cream for dessert.Four hundred years ago France's King Henri IV expressed his wish for the prosperity of his subjects: he hoped every peasant could afford "a chicken in his pot every Sunday." Assuming that accounted for half the meal, that amounts to a weekly diet of about 2.5 percent animal food. Notice that Henri said the chicken went in a pot, not on a spit or in a deep fryer. Meat was usually cut up in pieces and put in stews, sauces or stir-fries, mixed with plenty of vegetables and/or grains. Thus it still accounted for only a small portion of the meal.Meat was expensive. Until the 20th century very few people could afford much of it-most of the world's people still can't.As recently as 1910 average Americans got 60 percent of their calories from carbohydrates and 20 percent from fat. By 1980 it was 40/40. People didn't start eating more meat because it was good for them. They did it because it was a treat, because it was rare, because of the status it conferred. They ate it because it was what the rich and powerful ate. It was a sign of prosperity. We all want to be fashionable, and eating meat every day at practically every meal was new, it was . . . progress.Meat is still expensive. Switching to a vegetarian diet can cut a family's food budget by 40 percent. But that's chicken feed compared to the real price we pay for meat.In medical costs alone, the United States spends over $135 billion a year on the treatment of cardiovascular diseases; that tops the list of the country's medical costs. Few individuals can afford the $50,000 to $100,000 required for surgery, hospital stays, drugs, in-home care and subsequent monitoring. A heart transplant costs over $150,000, and this figure will not be significantly reduced with increased volume. The costs are borne by the insurance companies for those with coverage, and by the government for those without (about half). Insurance companies are paid by individuals, and by the businesses and government entities that provide benefits to their employees, but ultimately we all pay, in our taxes and in the higher prices we're charged by businesses covering the cost of their benefits.As everyone knows, heart disease is the number one cause of death in this country. The average modern American male has a 50 percent chance of dying from a heart attack. Certain non average American males-those who consume no meat, poultry, fish or dairy products-have a four percent chance. If only one out of 25 Americans (four percent) needed treatment for heart disease instead of one out of two, that would be $120 billion in savings.Cancer is the number two cause of death in the U.S. and is another $100-billion-a-year burden. Forty percent of all cancers in the U.S. are now known to be directly related to diet. Women who eat meat daily have a 380 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who eat meat once a week; men who eat meat daily have a 360 percent higher risk of prostate cancer than men who eat meat sparingly.The list goes on. Some two-thirds of diseases common in America are attributable to our meat-based diet. Medical costs alone are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Figure in lost productivity, lost natural resources and pollution costs, and the sum grows from billions to trillions annually. These figures are not widely known, in part because the meat and dairy industries are colossal and will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to obfuscate the issue. The idea that milk is "nature's most perfect food" and has "something for everybody" came from advertising, not nutritional science, unless that science was in the service of the industry that funded it.In 1983 McDougall wrote that five out of the six studies in medical literature that didn't show a significant rise in cholesterol with egg consumption were paid for by egg industry organizations (the sixth wasn't identified). One trick employed was to saturate the subjects with cholesterol before they ate the eggs, feeding them a diet high in other animal and dairy products. Once serum cholesterol reached stratospheric levels, then, indeed, eating a couple of eggs didn't seem to make much of a difference.One reason people like to eat fat is that, like tobacco, it deadens them, literally. "There's no taste bud for fat," McDougall notes. "It has to be mixed with salt or sugar, which people do like." Fat is not so much an acquired taste as an acquired sensation. Its physiological effect is to make blood cells clump together and travel more slowly through the veins and arteries. Tests have shown that after a high-fat meal, such as a hamburger, blood flow may drop by 50 percent or more.A high-fat meal is soporific. A layer of fat is like insulation. We need our sugar and caffeine, using them to give us energy to keep up with modern life, and we want our fat just as much to retreat from it.The transition back to a plant-based diet is going to be slow and difficult. Although the Standard American Diet is just a historical hiccup, that doesn't mean much to people who've been eating this way all their lives. To them it's nostalgia-Mom serving steak so you'll grow up big and strong, your first-grade teacher praising you for drinking your milk.And it's a habit. Habits are hard to change, especially when everyone else has the same one. It's like going to a party where everyone smokes -- there's incredible pressure to join in. Restaurants feature meat, fish and poultry dishes with plenty of dairy. Ninety-nine percent of the food ads are for products containing meat or dairy or containing added fats, refined sugars and chemical additives. To eat a plant-based natural diet of whole foods means avoiding about 95 percent of what supermarkets carry. Any transition is going to take at least a generation.The good news is that as our society undergoes these changes it gets easier and easier. Already many restaurants offer excellent low-fat or nonfat vegetarian choices, and even major food manufacturers are offering more meat-free and dairy-free low-fat products. Most people who change their diet won't miss their burgers any more than ex-smokers miss their cigarettes. They might, in fact, feel the same relief as someone who's kicked the habit and regard their old way of eating with disgust and disbelief.Habits are hard to break, but once replaced, the new habits can become equally entrenched. Most of us know former couch potatoes who are now avid, even fanatical, runners. Their bodies once resisted getting off the sofa; after a few months their bodies call for them to put on running shoes and get out the door.At first the prospect of a low-fat, meatless and dairyless diet is dismal and daunting. Ornish tells a joke: Am I going to live longer or will it just seem that way?Happily, the feeling fades, just like the desire for tobacco. Take people who switch from whole milk to low-fat milk (which, incidentally, is only "low fat" by weight -- it's over 30 percent fat as a percentage of calories). When they first make the change, low-fat milk seems a deprivation, gray, watery and tasteless. After a few weeks they get used to it. A change back to whole milk seems unappetizing -- it's just too rich, like drinking liquid whale blubber.Imagine a person who's never eaten any Asian dishes, and then discovered the regional cuisines of China, Japan, Thailand and India. It's a whole new world of tastes and cooking. Imagine never having tried Mexican food, or Middle Eastern. Or Italian. In effect, that's what happens. One returns to the traditional diets of all these cultures, getting back to the basics of even Northern European cuisines. Once started it's easy to change the sense of deprivation into one of exploration.Tom Klaber is a freelance writer who lives in Sonoma County.Beef's Cost: A Lot of GreenWhile the medical price of the Standard American Diet to personal health alone is staggering, it's only half the story. Few are aware of the toll the meat and dairy industries take on the environment, on "planetary health." The cost, both in quality of life and quantified in dollars, is just as great as the toll on the human body. Some statistics culled from the government and U.S. livestock industries by the EarthSave Foundation:70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S. is consumed by livestock.It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef.Over half the water consumed in the U.S. irrigates land used to grow feed for livestock.One-third of all raw materials consumed by the U.S. (farming, forestry, mining, fossil fuels) goes toward livestock production.It takes 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef.It takes 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from soybeans.1 acre of prime land can produce 250 pounds of edible beef. Or 20,000 pounds of apples. Or 40,000 pounds of potatoes.It has been estimated that driving a car that gets 24 miles a gallon uses less energy than a walking person fueled by the Standard American Diet.An average milk cow produces 70 pounds of manure and 36 pounds of urine daily.U.S. livestock produces 230,000 pounds of excrement every second.The largest feedlots, with up to 100,000 animals, have the same sewage problems as major cities but do not have sewer systems.Water pollution produced by agriculture in the U.S. is more than all municipal and industrial sources combined.Half of all U.S. wells and surface streams have been contaminated.55 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to live-stock. In 1960, 13 percent of staphylococcus infections were resistant to penicillin; in 1988 the figure was 91 percent. -T.K.