In early October, The New York Times ran an article examining the case of a 22-year-old Minnesota dance instructor who went into a coma and was paralyzed from the waist down after eating a hamburger tainted by a particularly virulent strain of E. coli. To Susan Levin, MS, RD, a 2003 graduate of Bastyr University's Master of Science in Nutrition degree program, the article offered a perfect segue into a broader discussion about the dangers of America's appetite for cheap red meat. As she wrote in a letter to The Times that appeared in the October 9 edition: "As a dietitian, I agree that eating beef is still a gamble — but it always will be. As long as we produce and consume huge quantities of cheap meat, the risks of food-borne illnesses — and diet-related chronic diseases — are not going away."
To support her point, Levin referenced a recent National Cancer Institute study of more than half a million people that found those who ate 4 ounces of red meat a day — the size of a small hamburger — were more likely to die over the next 10 years, mostly from heart disease and cancer.
For Levin, publicity isn't new. Earlier this year, she challenged a minor league baseball team in Michigan to label its new burger — a 4-pound, $20 item featuring five beef patties, nacho cheese, sour cream, salsa, a cup of chili and 4,800 calories — a "dietary disaster." She also asked the team not to sell it to anyone under the age of 18. Her letter received widespread media attention, including stories in The New York Times, The Seattle Times, ESPN and the London-based Telegraph, and prompted web discussions on blogs and national media sites about whether offering such a menu item was irresponsible.
As the director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for preventive medicine and a vegan diet, writing letters (to the media and others) and raising awareness about healthy eating habits is all part of the job. As a former journalist whose own positive experience of becoming a vegan prompted her to pursue an education at Bastyr, her efforts are also part of a deep desire to help more people take control of their health.
"I think there needs to be more talk and publicity about how nutrition does play a role in chronic disease and prevention of chronic disease," says Levin, whose job duties with PCRM range from general political action (lobbying at the Capitol) to focused public education (such as helping organize lectures for clinical trials or dietary-education web casts for people with diabetes). "I just want to teach people that a lot of these chronic diseases are so preventable. Many people are eating in ways that inflict damage upon themselves, and they don't realize it."
She says her goal is not simply to endorse a vegan diet, but to prompt people to look into the science behind a good diet and how it relates to health. "I think most people would say 'I like having the energy to run, and I like feeling good and having good skin,' " Levin says. "To me, this should be a number one motivator: taking control of your diet as a way to empower your health. Usually you're going to be well if you eat well."
Promoting wellness through nutrition is a calling Levin says she was uniquely prepared for in Bastyr's science-based whole-food nutrition program. "At PCRM, we don't say anything we can't back up with studies from science-based peer reviewed journals, and I love that," she says. "And they would never have hired me if I didn't have the credentials I received from Bastyr." Levin notes her position with PCRM and her Bastyr credentials mean the media and others take notice when she has something to say. She also notes, however, that instigating change in school lunchrooms, food-processing plants and even baseball stadiums requires a more grassroots effort. "Your local school principal or political representative might not care what a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. thinks about school lunches, but they care what local people think," she says. "I used to be far more skeptical about the political process until I realized how much influence people actually have at a local level."
And, while the West Michigan Whitecaps are still be selling their massive burger and the average American still eats more than 60 pounds of beef a year, Levin says there's reason to believe awareness about the importance of healthy eating is increasing. "I saw President Barack Obama give a speech where he called dietitians a first line of defense against chronic disease," Levin says. "I couldn't believe he said it. Leaders don't usually mention these things, but it shows people at the top are recognizing the importance of proper nutrition and preventative health."