Neal Barnard is a medical doctor on a mission.
He is a prolific author and founder of the vegan advocacy organization the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. To find out more about Dr. Barnard and his work, I conducted an email interview with him — here's what he had to say.
Diet Detective: What was the “aha moment” that triggered the formation of the PCRM and why?
Neal Barnard: The years before I went to medical school, I had a job assisting at autopsies. In that rather desolate “museum” of medical problems, I saw severe atherosclerosis, strokes, colon cancer and other diet-related conditions in graphic detail. After finishing my training, I resolved to do what I could to prevent these problems.
DD: What does the PCRM do?
NB: We promote preventive medicine, conduct clinical research and encourage higher standards in research. Our diabetes research has fundamentally changed the treatment of this deadly disease, and our 21-Day Kickstart programs have helped more than 200,000 people test-drive a healthy plant-based diet.
We continue to hear from participants who have lost weight, reversed diabetes, lowered cholesterol, cured arthritis and eliminated chronic pain. We've virtually ended the use of animals in medical education, which is a huge step forward.
DD: Can you explain your specific “dieting” or “eating” philosophy and why?
NB: Science supports our belief that low-fat, plant-based diets are the healthiest way to eat. We focus on four groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. The good news is that there is no need to count calories or limit portion sizes.
DD: What's the scariest thing about the foods we eat — something we should be considering an emergency?
NB: The fact that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one in three is headed for diabetes and a similar number are headed for cancer — those are all emergencies, even if people have become complacent about them.
As far as frightening foods are concerned, among the worst, surprisingly, is cheese. It should carry a warning label. Americans now consume 33 or 34 pounds of it per person each year. Most people don't know that cheese derives 70 percent of its calories from fat, most of which is saturated. This is what drives heart disease and diabetes. As our infatuation with cheese has grown, so have our waistlines.
DD: What's the biggest food atrocity?
NB: Aside from cheese, which approximately equates to Vaseline in its nutritional value, I'd point a finger of blame at processed meats. That means bacon, sausage, ham, deli slices and hot dogs. They are quite convincingly associated with colorectal cancer. And yet people keep feeding them to their children.
But probably the greatest atrocity is chicken. Americans now eat more than 1 million chickens per hour. The problem is that people think this is healthful. Chicken is loaded with fat and high in calories. Not to mention, one serving of skinless chicken contains about the same amount of cholesterol as a typical serving of beef.
DD: If you were in charge of our food system, how would you fix it?
NB: We need to promote healthful options — simple, nourishing foods to fight our nation's rising obesity and diabetes epidemics. What if you walked into every corner store and found fresh fruits and vegetables instead of Red Bull, beef jerky and potato chips? Nutrition experts, lawmakers and public health officials need to work together to make this a reality.
DD: Why a “vegan” diet?
NB: The reasons for a vegan diet are these:
•Observational studies show that a vegan diet is better than other diet patterns for weight control and for diabetes. In a study of 60,903 participants published by the American Diabetes Association in 2009, the more people excluded animal products from their diets, the healthier their body weights and the lower their risk of diabetes. A vegan diet was clearly superior to other diet patterns.
•Clinical trials — ours and others — show that a plant-based diet (vegan or near-vegan) is very effective for lowering cholesterol, promoting weight control, improving diabetes and other positive outcomes.
•Animal agriculture is grotesquely cruel. If you care about animals, deciding to not eat them is a logical step.
•Animal agriculture is damaging to the environment, polluting waterways and contributing to climate change. If you are a meat-eater, you're not an environmentalist.
•A vegan diet is very “doable.” It requires no calorie counting, no need to limit carbohydrates or portion sizes, etc.
•Breaking a meat or cheese habit is much easier than quitting smoking or breaking other addictions, and the rewards are enormous.
Can you please provide three to five words on the following topics?
DD: Organic foods?
NB: The more the better.
NB: Largely corrupt.
DD: Artificial sweeteners?
DD: Genetically modified foods?
NB: A potentially deadly experiment.
DD: Food additives and preservatives?
NB: The fewer the better.
DD: Nutritional supplements?
NB: B-12 essential, everything else unnecessary.
NB: Not the extreme end. Rather, the beginning of health.
DD: Locally grown foods?
NB: Fine, but overly hyped.
NB: Great for a calf. Period.
Now a few personal questions.
DD: What's always in your fridge and pantry?
NB: Oatmeal, tempeh and tofu, green veggies, apples, oranges, pears and the occasional frozen vegan pizza.
DD: What food would you never eat under any circumstances?
NB: Animal-derived products, Twizzlers and Red Bull.
DD: What do you generally eat for breakfast?
NB: Blueberry pancakes, oatmeal or rice cereal, along with grilled tempeh.
DD: What's your favorite healthy restaurant?
NB: Sublime, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the best restaurant in the galaxy.