Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s nutritional recommendations to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases and reduce the prevalence of obesity. More than any previous recommendations, these guidelines stress the importance of fruits and vegetables and for the first time ever, cite the merits of a vegan diet.
To find out what’s behind the new guidelines, I called one of the country’s leading advocates of a plant-based diet, nutrition researcher Dr. Neal Barnard. Barnard, president of Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has authored more than a dozen books. His 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health will be out February 28. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
What do you think of the new federal guidelines that just came out, including eating less food in general and adding more fruits and vegetables?
They’re not enough, but they are the best guidelines that have ever come out. They’re a step forward. The most notable thing is they use the world “vegan” for the first time. They devote two pages to vegetarian and vegan diets. And that’s very important. My team and others have done a lot of research on this diet for a number of years, but politics is such a big player that out of fear of upsetting the cattlemen and the other players, they do a good job ignoring the fact that Dean Ornish was never born. But here, there’s been a change.
In what way are these recommendations not enough?
Where they really left themselves open to criticism is speaking in code. They’ve done this for years. When they are referring to a food to eat more of, they will say what it is, specifically, but when they want you to eat less of something, they will obfuscate. They will say, “Eat more fruit, more whole grains, more legumes.” And then they will say, “Eat less cholesterol and saturated fat.” It’s pretty obvious people need to eat less meat and less cheese, because these are the main sources of saturated fat.
They’ve always done that, and frankly that’s the most offensive thing. They’re obviously kowtowing to the meat and dairy industries. They know full well they are huge political contributors. It wouldn’t matter if Americans weren’t overweight and at risk for heart disease, but they are.
So it’s good and it’s bad. But overall, I was really pleased to see the attention to the benefits of a plant-based diet; I give credit to Linda Van Horn, the head of the [U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory] Committee.
I think it needs to have food recommendations. It has food programs, food stamps, school lunches, food in prisons and in hospitals. The problem is that there is so much money involved in purchasing and distributing the food that the stakeholders weigh in. In 2007, the President’s cancer panel said explicitly that the federal government is completely inconsistent: They subsidize the same food that we say shouldn’t be eating, promoting high fat diets.
I think [the federal government] should stop all commercial promotion of foods. They can regulate agriculture and make it safe, but they don’t need to be promoting cheese.
Will these guidelines change what’s gong on in hospital and school cafeterias? I was at a hospital cafeteria recently and couldn’t believe how much fried food was there.
They should change. The guidelines form the blueprints for all programs. So school lunches are required to meet the guidelines, but the problem is that there’s no penalty if they don’t. So they don’t follow it, and most schools are out of compliance. They absolutely flout the law.
The problem isn’t having guidelines. If anything, they should be stricter and the programs should meet them.
The problem is the subsidies, which will be debated as part of the “farm bill.” The last go-round was 2007, and the members of Congress told us to our faces not to touch the subsidies for dairy, sugar and feed grain. They said politically, they can’t go up against [these lobbies]. In the current Congress I think the momentum to reduce these subsides is stronger than it’s ever been.
We’re now with food where we were with tobacco in the 1960s, back when everyone was smoking in restaurants and hospitals. Everyone knows its bad, but we’re not there politically.
I understand you have a new food diagram.
We have composed a new diagram called the Power Plate. The pyramid is confusing. People can’t apply it, and they don’t eat off a pyramid; they eat off a plate. What you should know is that the USDA is going to unveil something in about a month, and I don’t think it’ll look like a pyramid. I think it’ll look like a plate. It’s not as good as ours, but it’s a step in the right direction.
You have a program that encourages people to try a vegan diet for 21 days. Is that how long you think it takes people to realize they don’t need animal products in their diets?
With any habit, three weeks is a magic period. It allows you to feel a bit of the benefit. You might doubt it at the beginning, but after three weeks, you notice your weight is coming down, your energy is better. It also gives your taste a chance to change. For example, when people change from whole milk to low fat or skim milk, they hate it at first—it tastes watery. But then after some time, they taste whole milk again and it tastes like heavy cream.
From what you know, what’s the leading reason people make a switch in their diets: health, animal welfare or the environment?
It depends on their age. I’m now doing two research studies that show this. The first is with an endocrinology practice. We’re testing how to introduce vegan diets, and the average age is late 50s. For them, it’s all about health.
The second is a Geico study. We have 10 Geico sites, and half are offering the vegan diet and half are not. It’s totally voluntary in the cafeteria, and we’re tracking weight and cholesterol. Here, the employees are much younger and healthier. So their goal is their waistline and what they see when they look in the mirror.
Then there’s another group. I’m often asked to give lectures at high schools and colleges. At age 19, they are not thinking about prostate cancer. They are thinking about the environment and animal welfare.
How long have you been vegan?
Since mid 1980s.
What is the biggest misconception about veganism?
That you have to have a taste for folk music or that you wear a tie-dye t-shirt. Just kidding. I think most people have the accurate view that plant-based diets are healthier. I guess one misconception could be that you might not have enough protein, but that’s easy to fix.
I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. My grandpa was a cattle rancher and some of my cousins still are. I grew up with that. We grew up hunting ducks and geese. They’re good folks and good industries, decent people. But I’m glad to have made the change.
The year before I went to medical school, I worked in a hospital morgue in Minneapolis. I assisted the pathologist with the exams. We had a guy who came in with a massive coronary. To get to the heart, you cut through the ribs and pull the ribs off. The heart was filled with plaque. I remember the pathologist gave me a lecture: “This is from your bacon, this is from your eggs…” At the end, I put the ribs back and washed up and went to the cafeteria. They were serving ribs for lunch. I just couldn’t eat it. I didn’t become a vegetarian then, but after that, I’d be down in the morgue with the bodies and then I’d go to lunch. And there would be things that smelled like a body–and of course they were a body, just not a human one.