Dr Neal Barnard, M.D., is the founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and is one of America's leading advocates for health, nutrition, and higher standards in research. He's quite simply the go-to guy when it comes to eating plant-based, and celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Emily Deschanel, and our friends Kris Carr and Rory Freedman are all supporters of Dr. Barnard.
I talked to Dr. Barnard about how he went from growing up on a cattle ranch to becoming one of the leading authorities on eating plant-based, health benefits, the dangers (and powers) of dairy subsidies, and challenges that we face. In speaking with Dr. Barnard, I quickly realized that Dr. Barnard is one sharp guy who's passionate about making America healthier. He also has a sense of humor and his approach to eating plant-based is approachable and inclusive.
MBG: How did you go from growing up in a cattle ranch to a plant-based doctor?
NB: I grew up in North Dakota. My grandfather was a cattle rancher, my uncles and my cousins still are but my father didn't like the cattle business and left it and went to medical school. He spent his life treating diabetes in Fargo, North Dakota, which is where I grew up. The year before I went to medical school I had a job assisting the pathologist in the autopsy. One day we had a man who died of a massive heart attack and the pathologist made sure I saw the blockage of the artery and it was very graphic. He also made it clear that this process started early, and in many cases as early as age 23, which was my age at the time. After we cleaned everything up we headed to the hospital cafeteria, where it turned our they were serving ribs for lunch, which looked exactly like we had just seen. I didn't become a vegetarian right away but I just couldn't eat it.
As time went on, I became more and more in-tune with the link between what we eat and our health problems. I also came to understand other factors such as the effect of food choices on animals and the environment.
So it started with health, then animals and the environment?
I was raised as meat-eater, hunted with my father as a child, and had my first job at McDonald's so I'm making up for lost time. My only regret is that I wasn't aware of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet earlier in life.
Do you think 2010 was a turning point for embracing a plant-based diet?
Certainly this past year with President Clinton and so many prominent people embracing a plant-based diet has been great, but I think this year's going to be better, and the year after that, even better. There are more people embracing this journey than ever before. Years ago it was hard to find plant-based cookbooks and now there are shelves of them and it's easy to do. Whether they're embracing a plant-based diet part-time or full-time, so many people are doing it which is great to see.
Let's not forget that we're not even close to the tipping point as Americans still eat more than a million animals per hour. We are in the worst shape we've ever been in collectively and the next generation is in even worse shape -- approximately one in three kids are overweight, and approximately one in three will develop diabetes at some point in their life. Half of boys growing up now, and a third of girls growing up now, will ultimately develop cancer at some point in their life. To a large degree this is diet-related.
Which word do you prefer -- vegan or plant-based?
As far as terminology, if we look at smoking we don't really have a word for non-smokers. You're either a regular person or a smoker. The word relates to the unhealthy behavior. It would be very useful if there were a word for meat-eaters or people who consume animal products that is more inclusive. The word vegan is a good word in that it's very specific, which means you don't eat animal products. On the other hand, for some people when they hear vegan they think you like folk music, wear tie-dye shirts, and have an antenna sticking out of your head. On the other hand, plant-based is a word that is very welcoming, but that's non-specific, as some people would say that a traditional Chinese diet, which includes a little bit of meat is a plant-based diet. So who knows, I think the terminology is still evolving.
Let's keep in mind what we're confronting here with a person's diet -- this is what they have grown up with and what's familiar to them, and for a person to set that aside, it's asking a lot. We're also dealing with the addictive components of food. Meat and cheese have additive components so some people really miss them when they don't have those types of food. I realize addictive is a really strong word, but if you look at the opiate effects on the brain, it's an appropriate term.
People who continue to eat meat and dairy products are at a higher risk for heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes and subtract years for their life. But I can't tell you how many people I see who see my show on PBS or pick up a book, and within a day they're on a much healthier path. On one hand I don't want to underestimate the resistance, but on the other hand I don't want to underestimate the ability to break diet habits just like they've broken habits like smoking or alcohol.
Can you talk about the health effects of dairy?
Cow's milk products are heavy in fat, and it's not good fat, it's largely saturated fat, the kind of fat that causes heart attacks. The worst offender is cheese. The typical slice of cheese is 70 percent fat -- that's one step away from Vaseline. It's one of the unhealthiest foods you can eat. But marketers learned a long time ago that people gravitate toward cheese, so they add it to everything. I believe it is the single biggest reason for the obesity epidemic.
You think cheese is the single biggest reason for the obesity epidemic?
In 1909, the USDA started tracking food consumption patters and in that year Americans consumed an average of 3.8 pounds of cheese per person/per year. In 2011 we are well over 33 pounds of cheese per person/per year! We are putting 30 extra pounds of cheese in our bodies, which is mostly a big load of fat! 30 pounds of it! We're also eating 75 pounds more meat per person/per year and more sugar and more oil than we did a century ago which is also contributing to the problem. The cheese problem is the enormous one though, and when I hear people say cheese has calcium in it, well, asphalt has calcium in it, too, but that doesn't mean we should be feeding it to kids.
Can you talk about the role of government subsidy in cheese?
The US government is intimately involved in dairy marketing. In 2000, the US Government held a program with dairy marketers with the intention specifically to trigger cheese cravings. We know this because of the Freedom of Information Act -- we saw the notes and even the powerpoint slides. The US Government wanted to promote US agricultural products, but they're not so big on promoting apples or citrus fruits -- they're big on promoting meat and cheese for some reason. The US government directly subsidizes the dairy industry. It buys up unsold dairy products and puts them in schools. They put McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's and other fast food chains on contract, specifically to market products with more cheese in them, which is a great way to sell more cheese since these fast food restaurants are in every city in America. They've deliberately done this and the farmers have profited, but the farmers' families and the whole population is paying the price for this with their health.
What do you recommend for someone who wants to get started with a plant-based diet?
I break it down into two steps. The first step is not to change your diet but to test out your options. You may still eat your old diet, but test out your options and try some new recipes. So if you never made a plant-based lasagna, instead of cheese you might use tofu or spinach, or if you never had a vegan pizza with extra sauce and all the veggies and sautéed mushrooms, well, now's the time to try it and see if you like it. Let's say you have a habit of eating fast food and you find yourself at Taco Bell. Instead of having the beef burrito, try out the bean burrito without cheese. It might not be the pinnacle of culinary art but it's a whole lot healthier than what you were eating before. If you're going to Whole Foods and you're buying a hamburger, try a veggie burger.
So step one is about trying some new things and seeing what recipes you like. If you have the 'room service gene' and you buy a lot of convenience foods, then that's okay, just try to figure out which products you like that aren't made with animal products and are low in oil -- because it's no good if you're avoiding animal products but just gorging on greasy food. It might take a couple weeks to figure out what you like, but once you know what you like, I suggest taking a three-week period and make it all-vegan, all-the-time -- but only for three weeks. A person will say, "Sure, I can do that, I can do anything for three weeks." So do it as a test, and if after 21 days and you don't like it you can go back to they way things were. At the end of that time, two things have happened: first you're healthier, your weight is coming down, your digestion is sorting itself out. The second thing is that your tastes have also changed. If you think back when you went from whole milk to skim milk, skim milk tastes pretty horrible at first. But almost everybody adapts, and then they never want to go back to whole milk again -- it's revolting and fatty. If you go from skim milk to soy, rice, or almond milk, that's different too, but you eventually like it. So if you change your diet for three weeks and then went back to a double bacon cheeseburger, it'd gross you out, but you don't know that that would be the case. So, find the foods you like, do it 100 percent for three weeks see what's it like, and then you can talk about going more long term.
What challenges do you face?
I'll tell you what's challenging -- Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is going to take up subsidies for dairy products, and for corn and soybean (not for human consumption but as animal foods). There are already massive subsidies for these foods, which is why cheeseburgers are cheap - because they are subsidized directly or indirectly by the federal government. This is going to be taken up on Capital Hill later this year. The pressure on Congress to continue these subsidies is enormous because they're very afraid of cutting out a benefit for a politically active lobby. We all know that it's not a poor struggling farmer who's benefiting -- it's enormous corporations who are benefiting, which is what farming has largely turned into. But just like the banks and the chemical companies, they're a large and powerful force to be reckoned with. The problem is if we don't get a handle of subsidies and the promotion of unhealthy foods, then Americans are going to pay a terrible price, and most importantly we're going to set up the next generation to be even less healthy than the current one. We're going to make global climate change worse -- we're never going to cut into the terrible practices that go on at factory farms where animals clearly suffer. So to people to whom their health matters, animals matter or the environment matters, or their children matter, these things have to be tackled straight on, once and for all. Congress is not known for leading the charge -- Congress is the tail that is wagged by the dog, and the dog is the American public, so we've got to let people know that they need to let their congressional leaders know that we've got to start to create a level playing field when it comes to what foods are chosen. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans -- these should be the foods that are favored, accessible, and affordable, and until that's the case we're going to have one arm tied behind our back.
What are you excited about in 2011?
PCRM has launched a new PCRM legislative fund which is headed by Elizabeth Kucinich, the wife of Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. We have a new program with GEICO where people will be trying out a vegan diet for the first time! We're doing it as a weight loss study and to see the health benefits they enjoy. Our 21-day kickstart program had over 100,000 participants in just the last year. We'll be repeating that on April 4th so you can sign up now at pcrm.org to register and get encouraging emails every day and it's all free. You feel the change, there are a lot of exciting things happening. I'll also be doing a lot of touring for my new book and PBS program.
Can you tell us more about your new book, the '21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart' and program?
My book, the 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart is a more comprehensive version of PCRM's 21-day program and I'm really excited about it. PBS has a program devoted to it called 'Kickstart Your Health', which is running on all its stations across the country.
Below is a preview of his PBS special: