Why Rahm Wants the City of Hot Dogs and Deep Dish to Go Vegan

The Windy City mayor is promoting a plant-based diet to help residents drop pounds.

Rahm says: No more animal products! (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Jan 18, 2013
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

It’s no surprise to hear “Go Vegan!” from your average picket-sign-waving animal-rights advocate. But from mayor of America’s third-largest city? That’s a different story.

Recently, the Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged Chicagoans to cut out animal products from their diets in an effort to combat obesity.

Emanuel, who is famously fit himself, specifically endorsed the Engine 2 Diet, a regimen developed by former firefighter and triathlete Rip Esselstyn, when he appeared alongside Esselstyn on Chicago’s WGN-TV. The Engine 2 diet is primarily plant-based, promoting consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. It also advocates eating foods low in salt and fat and avoiding refined sugars altogether.

Based on self-reported data on Illinois residents gathered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence of obesity in the state is at 27 percent. A 2012 report by the Trust for America's Health (TAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) estimated Illinois’ obesity rate could nearly double to 53.7 percent by 2030.

Dr. Michael Klaper, a vegan physician, Chicago native, and friend of Rip Esselstyn, tells TakePart he’s proud of Emanuel for making the courageous but essential challenge to improve the community. A healthy diet, he says, isn’t dependent on eating animals; it’s about finding the right nutrients. “The old saying ‘you are what you eat’ isn’t true,” he says. “You are what you absorb.”

Improving health is just one incentive driving Emanuel; the Mayor said lowering costs associated with obesity-related health care is another. The 2012 report by TAH and RWJF estimated that if Illinois were to decrease its average body mass index (BMI) by five percent, the state could save more than $9 billion in 10 years and $28 billion in 20 years.

But is going vegan the key to slimming down chubby Chicagoans? That depends.

Vandana Sheth, Spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells TakePart that a vegan diet “can be healthy, as long as it is well-balanced.” She warns, however, that a vegan or vegetarian diet is not healthy by default. It can still include a lot of fats, which is why balance is key.

New vegans, she says, should meet with local dieticians or nutritionists to address personal or family needs and to come up with a plan. “Make the shift gradual,” she says. “For example, make taco night with beans instead of meat. There are lots of ways to make it fun and adventurous for the whole family.”

Whatever the route, something has to change. Emanuel told WGN viewers that obesity is in part responsible for shortened life expectancies in the U.S. “We have to do a better job of how we eat and control our weight.”

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