Dr. Neal Barnard is an American physician, author, and activist specializing in the areas of nutrition and health. He is the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and has written numerous books on topics such as vegan nutrition, diabetes, weight loss, and cancer prevention. In this interview, we speak with Dr. Barnard about his work and how a plant-based diet can contribute to improving our health and the health of the planet.
- Can you tell us about your journey into the field of plant-based nutrition and what inspired you to pursue this path?
The year before I went to medical school, I had a job helping with autopsies in a hospital morgue. One day, a patient died in the hospital of a massive heart attack. The pathologist knew I would soon be going to medical school, so he made sure I saw everything. He took a scalpel, opened the chest, and removed a section of ribs to expose the heart. Then he sliced open one of the coronary arteries and told me to look inside. It looked like rusty pipes. He said, “That’s atherosclerosis.” We looked in the carotid arteries going to the brain, and you could see the narrowing of the arteries. He said, “That is the result of your morning eggs and bacon.” When he finished, I put the ribs back in the chest, sewed up the skin, and cleaned up. When I was done, I went up to the cafeteria, only to find they were serving ribs for lunch. They looked just like the dead body, and smelled like it, too. I realized that this was a body. I did not become a vegetarian yet, but the thought processes got started. Later I learned about the ethical issues, and what the animals go through, as well as the health consequences of eating animal products.
Later on, I received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study diabetes, with a particular focus on plant-based diets and found that a vegan diet was three times more effective at improving blood sugar control than the portion-controlled diet typically recommended for patients with diabetes. We now know that diabetes is not a one-way street: It can be improved and, for many people, reversed with a plant-based diet.
- How do you recommend people transition to a plant-based diet, and what benefits can they expect to see?
I recommend taking a week to prepare and then eating a 100% plant-based diet for three weeks. That means avoiding all animal products—meat, fish, eggs, and dairy—and eating meals built from fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Three weeks is long enough to establish a plant-based diet as a habit and see some results—and chances are you’ll feel so great you won’t look back.
In your planning week, identify the meals you already eat that are plant-based and those that could easily be made plant-based. For example, you could top spaghetti with tomato sauce instead of meat sauce, and could make pizza without cheese and meat, but top with roasted vegetables.
Next, make a list of plant-based recipes that you would like to try—there are countless recipes available for free online. We have plenty at PCRM.org/Recipes. Our Universal Meals program also features several recipes inspired by global cuisine. I also have a series of books, The Best in the World, featuring plant-based recipes from distinctive restaurants around the globe.
Now, make a grocery with all of the ingredients you’ll need, and you’re ready to get started with a plant-based diet!
Some other helpful resources that will help you along the way are our free Vegan Kickstart app, my Vegan Starter Kit book, and free literature at PCRM.org/Nutrition. For those looking for more hands-on guidance, we offer Food for Life classes in 32 countries around the world.
- Can you discuss the link between nutrition and chronic diseases, and how a plant-based diet can help prevent and even reverse these conditions?
Globally, millions of deaths every year from chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer are associated with diets based on animal products and low on fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans.
Research shows that plant-based diets—which are full of fiber; rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; free of cholesterol; and low in calories and saturated fat—reduce the risk of conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, severe COVID-19, and dementia. They are also beneficial for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
- What are some of the most common misconceptions about plant-based diets that you encounter, and how do you address them?
There are only benefits from eating a plant-based diet! Needless to say, however, people will wonder about getting complete nutrition. It turns out that nutrition is much better with a plant-based diet. You not only get all the protein you need from beans, grains, vegetables, and fruits; these same foods give you plenty of calcium, vitamins, and minerals.
- How important is exercise and physical activity for overall health, and what are some of your favorite ways to stay active?
Physical activity alone won’t keep you healthy, but exercise is good for the heart and the brain. Personally, I take long walks, and run three times a week.
Whether you are a walker, runner, swimmer, cyclist, or professional athlete, a plant-based diet can help improve your athletic performance. A Physicians Committee study found that plant-based athletes benefit from improvements in heart health, performance, and recovery.
That said, some people are not able to exercise for various reasons. They can still do very well by using a healthy plant-based diet.
- Can you speak to the importance of sleep for overall health, and what tips do you have for getting a good night’s rest?
Our bodies need sleep to rest and recharge. Without sufficient sleep—seven to eight hours for most people—we increase our risk for developing serious health problems. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, elevated blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The keys to healthful sleep are (1) be careful about caffeine and alcohol, (2) get physical activity every day, and (3) emphasize complex carbohydrates in your evening meal. They stimulate the release of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that calms your brain and helps you sleep. So building your dinner around starchy foods, like pasta, rice, and potatoes, will help you doze off and stay asleep through the night.
- Can you discuss the role of stress in our health, and what techniques do you recommend for managing stress?
Stress can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, as well as other health problems. Lifestyle factors including getting adequate sleep and exercising can help alleviate stress. Eating a plant-based diet also benefits mood.
A clinical study my colleagues and I conducted found that a plant-based diet helped office workers improve depression and anxiety. Other research has shown that people eating very little meat were less likely to experience depression. The researchers found that diets built mainly from plant sources were associated with a 26% reduction in the risk of depression, with a particular benefit from beans, nuts, and fruits.
- How can families incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets, especially if they have picky eaters or are on a tight budget?
Stick to the meals you are familiar with, but make them plant-based. For example, instead of scrambled eggs, try Cauliflower Scramble; instead of pasta with meat sauce, try pasta with Eat-Your-Veggies Bolognese and Garden Veggie Meatballs; and instead of chocolate cake, try Fudgy Black Bean Brownies.
Transition foods—plant-based alternatives to burgers, milk, cheese—may be helpful for picky eaters. Engaging picky eaters in meal planning can also help.
Plant-based diets are actually more budget-friendly than a diet with animal products. Studies show that a family can save $1500 a year by simply switching to a plant-based diet. Eating a plant-based diet can also help cut down on medical expenses. A study in Taiwan found that compared to the general population, vegetarians had a 25% lower medical expenditures.
- What are some of your favorite plant-based recipes or meals, and how do you make them delicious and satisfying?
Well, so many plant-based meals are naturally delicious and satisfying! My noontime meal is usually a bit heavier—a bean burrito with jalapeno peppers, for example, while my evening meal is lighter. It could be a Japanese dinner of miso soup, salad, and a cucumber roll. Or perhaps angel hair pasta with arrabbiata sauce and grilled vegetables.
10. How do you stay up-to-date with the latest research and developments in the field of nutrition and health?
I take continuing medical education courses (like those the Physicians Committee offers at NutritionCME.org), read scientific journals, and attend conferences.
We share the latest developments on plant-based nutrition through our Breaking Medical News alerts, which your readers can sign up to receive for free. For those who are health care professionals, I also recommend our annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine, which will take place this year on Aug. 10-12, in Washington, D.C.
- Can you tell us about any exciting new projects or initiatives you have coming up in the near future?
We are hosting the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine, a huge conference in Washington, DC, with speakers from all over the world. Also, we are involved in reformulating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are the model for all U.S. food programs.
- How do you balance your professional and personal life, and what strategies do you use to maintain your own health and well-being?
I like to write and compose music and have a band called CarbonWorks. And the greatest singer in Italy, Dolche, lends her beautiful voice to our music. In some of the songs, art and advocacy intersect. For example, the song “Louder Than Words” is about our relationship to animals. “Samurai” is about a girl who fancies herself to be the samurai who is going save her animal friends.
- How has your family influenced your career and your approach to health and nutrition?
Yes. My extended family raised cattle, and we hunted. I saw first-hand the problems with these ways of putting food on the plate, and resolved to do better. My father, a physician who specialized in treating patients with diabetes, helped me see how much we needed a better approach to diabetes and other chronic diseases; that means a renewed focus on healthful foods.
- What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in the field of plant-based nutrition and health?
In the United States, there is little nutrition education for health care professionals—although the Physicians Committee is working to change that—so I recommend taking charge of your own nutrition education. There are several online programs where you can get a certificate in plant-based nutrition. Our website also has resources to help medical students, nurses, and practicing clinicians, including NutritionCME.org, International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine, and the Nutrition Guide for Clinicians.
- What are some of your future goals and aspirations, both personally and professionally, and how do you plan to achieve them?
There is a great deal of research yet to be done on the benefits of a vegan diet for children, for cancer patients, and many other applications. And most importantly, I hope to continue to find new ways to share what we have learned with others.
In summary, Dr. Neal Barnard’s insights on the benefits of a plant-based diet and his dedication to promoting healthier lifestyles are truly inspiring. His work serves as a reminder that simple changes to our diet can have a significant impact on our health and well-being.