Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Dr. Neal Barnard for his work with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to educate the public on the role of diet in prevention of diseases. Through his research, writing, and speaking, Dr. Barnard has become a leading voice in encouraging lifestyle changes to promote good health.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Dr Neal Barnard (NB).
VIP: What encouraged you to become vegetarian/vegan?
NB: During the year before I went to medical school, I had a job in a hospital in which I assisted at autopsies. Colon cancer or strokes may be a bit theoretical to other people, but when you've actually seen their deadly effects, it makes a bit of an impression. One day, we examined the body of a person who had died of a massive heart attack. After removing the ribs and examining the heart, we found atherosclerosis--blocked arteries--throughout the body. I then replaced the ribs and sewed up the skin. When we were finished, we went to the hospital cafeteria where we found that ribs were being served for lunch. The look and smell was a bit too close to the dead body I had been examining. Also, after participating in some disquieting animal experiments, I began to rethink our treatment of animals more generally. I came to the conclusion that alleviating animal suffering was an important task.
VIP: Are any of your family members vegetarian/vegan?
NB: My father's extended family is in the cattle business, and most have not yet changed their diets, although I am happy to report that my parents are now vegetarians.
VIP: Can you tell us about your education?
NB: I attended medical school at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and completed a residency in psychiatry there as well, before moving to New York to work at St. Vincent's Hospital in downtown Manhattan.
VIP: Do you presently have a practice or is your time devoted to research and writing?
NB: My time is divided between the human clinical research trials the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sponsors, writing, and PCRM's educational work.
VIP: How did your involvement in PCRM begin? What was your role in the formation of PCRM?
NB: I founded PCRM in1985, after becoming convinced that it was important for doctors to advocate for prevention, particularly good nutrition, and higher standards in research.
VIP: What are the major goals and objectives of PCRM?
NB: Our programs promote prevention, particularly good nutrition, and higher standards in research.
VIP: What major health concerns does PCRM focus on?
NB: We conduct research studies in diet-related illnesses. We are also working to reform the Dietary Guidelines for Americans so that unhealthful foods are no longer promoted. Our legal staff is not hesitant to bring a lawsuit against the government if it is not furthering the good health of Americans. We run the Cancer Project, which promotes cancer prevention and also has nutrition and cooking classes for cancer patients. We also have many programs for more ethical research. You'll see more on our Web site, http://www.pcrm.org.
VIP: How extensive is the membership? Number of doctors or lay people?
NB: We have about 5,000 physician members. Nonphysicians are welcome to join as supporting members, and we currently have about 100,000 in that category. I hope that we have been able to be a helpful resource, both to doctors and nonphysicians.
VIP: What accomplishments of PCRM have been most rewarding to you and your colleagues?
NB: Our research studies have helped establish the value of a low-fat diet in diabetes, cholesterol control, weight-loss, and other applications. They have also specifically demonstrated the acceptability of vegetarian diets in research, something that some researchers doubted. Our recent court victory over the Department of Agriculture was gratifying, as it now breaks open the process by which federal diet policies are developed and exposes the role of industry. We are now grappling with the U.S. government's massive animal testing plans for industrial chemicals, and we are trying to advance a more compassionate approach to chemical safety.
VIP: How does the medical profession respond to PCRM's message?
NB: We have more and more interest and support every year. In years past, the medical profession was not as welcoming as it is today. Happily, that seems to have changed quite dramatically. However, the food industry is as resistant as ever, and dealing with the lethargy of human behavior is an even bigger challenge.
VIP: How does PCRM communicate its aims and objectives to those in the medical profession?
NB: Our electronic alerts, called PCRM Breaking News, go out whenever major research news is announced (to sign up, log onto www.PCRM.org). We also publish our studies in peer-reviewed journals, and do an enormous amount of work with the media.
VIP: In your opinion, how do vegetarians and vegans compare in over-all health?
NB: A vegan diet is clearly the most healthful choice. An ovolactovegetarian diet is far better than a meat-based diet, but sooner or later vegetarians will want to get away from cheese and other dairy products and eggs. Dairy products contribute to a host of problems from digestive difficulties, to arthritis, and perhaps even prostate cancer and other forms of the disease. People who are concerned about the ethical treatment of animals usually quit using dairy products as soon as they learn that the dairy industry is the source of the cast-off male calves used for veal. From whatever standpoint you approach it, a vegan diet makes the best sense. For people who are unsure about getting complete nutrition, I encourage people to simply take a multivitamin, so they don't have to worry about which foods have vitamin B-12.
VIP: With numerous health studies demonstrating positive results for a vegetarian lifestyle, why is there so much reluctance by physicians to advocate a vegetarian diet to their patients?
NB: Doctors are getting better. But many are still too eager to prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs or diabetes medications than to recommend diet changes. But the fact is, patients really appreciate it when a doctor recommends diet changes, because they will reap so many more benefits. I have been pleased to learn that many doctors refer patients to the PCRM Web site or to my books. Jennifer Raymond has done such a brilliant job with the recipes in my various books, that going vegan is really easy and even fun.
VIP: Can you offer any suggestions for lay people to bring the vegetarian message to physicians?
NB: Yes. They can ask their doctor if they can sign them up for a membership in PCRM. They can also use PCRM's nutritional materials, such as the Vegetarian Starter Kit, in their offices.
VIP: When you're not focusing on PCRM projects or working on your next book, what leisure activities bring you pleasure and relaxation?
NB: I travel quite a lot, and enjoy movies and music.
VIP: Do you share your home with an animal companion?
NB: No. My old dog, Betsy, put up with me through medical school, residency, and for several years afterward. After she died, I felt that my travel schedule made it hard for me to be a good companion for another animal.
VIP: What personal goals have you set for yourself for the coming year?
NB: We are continuing our research studies, publishing the results, and continuing to work with (and sometimes against) government agencies in the battle for better health.
VIP: We often hear that vegetarians are less aggressive, calmer, more peaceful people. Is there any medical evidence to support this view?
NB: Yes. A Massachusetts study on male aging showed that men who had higher levels of SHBG (sex-hormone binding globulin) in their blood were rated by their wives as less aggressive and less domineering. SHBG is a protein that binds to testosterone and reduces its activity, which is generally a good thing. As it happens, high-fiber diets boost SHBG.
But we mustn't be too passive. Those people pushing unhealthful diets are aggressive and well-funded. It is going to take considerable assertiveness on our part to continue the progress we are making. Whereas vegetarian societies used to limit their actions to social support and education, they are now moving into the arenas of more assertive action, especially working with the media. Given that Americans now eat, believe it or not, one million animals per hour, and we are collectively in the worst shape we have ever been in, there is a lot to be done.