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Column: 2013: Year of the Vegan?

Move over, bacon-flavored chocolate. If trend trackers — who are predicting an increased interest in mock meats, vegan foods for infants and other animal-free options — are correct, 2013 just might be the year of the vegan. Even the Cooking Channel is getting in on the act. The popular cable channel recently aired the first mainstream vegan cooking show, How to Live to 100.

If your goals for 2013 include improving your health, reducing your carbon footprint or helping animals, then going vegan should be at the top of your resolutions list.

In a recent New York Times column, “Vegan Before 6” advocate Mark Bittman reminds us, “Nothing affects public health more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.”

Few behaviors take such a severe toll on one’s heart as consuming meat, eggs and dairy products, which are loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol. While eating animal products can lead to elevated cholesterol levels and heart attacks, studies have shown that a low-fat, meat-free diet can reverse the effects of heart disease in many patients. Former President Bill Clinton, who underwent coronary bypass surgery in 2004, has embraced vegan eating — and has shed more than 20 unwanted pounds on his heart-healthy, plant-based diet.

Going vegan can also help you live longer. Loma Linda University’s Adventist Health Study-2, which has been following more than 96,000 participants from the U.S. and Canada for more than a decade, has found that vegetarian men live, on average, 9.5 years longer than their meat-eating counterparts. Vegetarian women live 6.1 years longer.

University of Cambridge biostatistician David Spiegelhalter — who developed the concept of the “microlife,” a 30-minute unit of life expectancy, to analyze the effects of good and bad habits — puts it this way: “A lifelong habit of eating burgers for lunch is, when averaged over the lifetimes of many people, associated with a loss of half an hour a day in life expectancy.” In contrast, eating five servings of fruits and vegetables will earn you an additional two hours a day.

The Adventist study also found many other benefits from going meat-free. According to the study, men who eat beef more than three times a week more than double their risk of dying of heart disease, and women who eat a lot of meat and cheese more than double their risk of developing ovarian cancer. Vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower blood pressure and a lower risk of heart disease, are less prone to developing arthritis and diabetes and weigh less. On average, the study’s vegan participants have a five-point lower body mass index than do the meat-eaters. For the typical 55-year-old, that translates to about 30 pounds.

Kathy Rayner, an emergency-room nurse who is participating in the Adventist Health Study-2, explains her reasons for going vegan: “Being an emergency-room nurse has been such an eye-opener. The majority of the people I see is because of their diet. Animal products are like cement in your bowel — there’s no fiber.”

Eating meat is as harmful to the Earth as it is to our health. According to a United Nations report, the meat industry contributes to land degradation, climate change, air and water pollution, water shortages and loss of biodiversity. And, of course, every vegan prevents the daily suffering and terrifying deaths of more than 100 animals every year.

It’s rare for one simple lifestyle change to have such a profound effect. Now that vegan eating has gone mainstream, it’s never been easier to make the switch. In 2013, why not try eating more vegan meals and seeing how you feel? You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Paula Moore is a senior writer with the PETA Foundation.