The full Neal deal: Fargo-born nutrition advocate doesn’t avoid controversyFARGO - Dr. Neal Barnard doesn’t think his battle against America’s food manufacturers is of David-and-Goliath proportions.
FARGO - Dr. Neal Barnard doesn’t think his battle against America’s food manufacturers is of David-and-Goliath proportions.
David, the outmatched warrior, had much better odds than he does, Barnard jokes.
Indeed, the Fargo native’s mission sometimes seems insurmountable. The group he founded, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, fights leviathans like fast food, corporate America and this country’s obesity epidemic with a message that’s not always popular:
Give up foods like cheese, meat and butter and switch to a low-fat, plant-based diet.
But to this health advocate/ clinical researcher/author, it’s worth it. He believes America’s health is at a crisis point.
“Things have never been this bad, but they’re clearly going to get worse,” Barnard says in a phone interview from the PCRM offices in Washington D.C. “And when I say worse, I mean children are getting weight problems earlier than ever and they’re going to be in a very bad shape as adults. The cost of this is going to threaten to bankrupt our country. The biggest issue every time Congress deals with our issue is medical-care costs.”
Barnard, who ticks off numbers and statistics with ease, points out that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion in 2008.
Now he has gone to great lengths to drive home the importance of preventing health problems through nutrition.
He has written 10 books, and will release an 11th in 2013. PCRM worked with the federal government to shift its food guide pyramid to the more fruit- and veggie-heavy MyPlate. He has preached the power of plant-based diets via platforms like “Dr. Oz,” PBS specials and the Morgan Spurlock documentary “Super Size Me.”
In the process, he has raised the hackles of many. When the PCRM petitioned President Barack Obama to ban photographs of him and all Cabinet members eating hotdogs, hamburgers or any other “unhealthy” foods, one newspaper columnist suggested the PRMC recognizes three food groups: “lettuce, tofu and gravel.”
In 2011, the group goaded Green Bay Packers fans by erecting an anti-cheese billboard – complete with Grim Reaper – near the dairy state’s Lambeau Field.
Barnard says his mission to transform America’s diet is so important that he needs to tolerate criticism.
“The reason I’m involved in this is because the issues are real,” he says. “We’ve found that the press is responsive to a little bit of controversy or something that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, so we sometimes need to make the megaphone as big as it can be.”
‘A buttoned-down guy’
If a vegan diet is the key to clear arteries and clearer skin, Barnard is the perfect poster child.
At 5-feet-11-inches and 145 pounds, Barnard sports the same angular jaw and slim build he’s had since he first founded the PCRM 27 years ago.
Yet he didn’t always eat this way. Barnard is descended from a long line of cattle ranchers. His cousins still raise cattle in Illinois.
“They’re really good folks and really decent people. They just probably don’t raise the healthiest product,” he says. “We don’t have any debates, because they know what I’m saying is founded on good science.”
Neal’s father, Donald, didn’t want to be a rancher, so he studied medicine instead. In 1953, he moved his young family here and began working in internal medicine at Fargo Clinic.
The middle child in a family of five children, Neal Barnard says he grew up eating roast beef, corn and mashed potatoes.
His father specialized in diabetes treatment at a time when many nutritional aspects of the disease were unknown. “When he was in his training, diabetes was thought to be a one-way street. I think he found the disease challenging,” Barnard says.
Yet Barnard says he learned important life lessons from his father, who passed away in February.
“My parents had a very strong work ethic,” he says. “Never would you not do your homework or skip school. They always had their noses to the grindstone.”
High school friend Daniel Cozort, who now lives in Carlisle, Pa., remembers Barnard from school activities like plays, Key Club and debate team.
“I remember him as seeming to be an utterly buttoned-down, tucked-in sort of guy, a nerd, but actually being very funny and loose. He had a placid demeanor, and he always kept his cool,” Cozort says. “We’ve all been amazed and heartened by his activities with PCRM. I think it is very, very important work. It’s such a kick to see him on TV.”
After graduating from Fargo South in 1971, Barnard landed a job in a Minneapolis pathology lab. While assisting in an autopsy, Barnard saw a body with arterial blockages that “looked like concrete,” he recalls. “We saw what kills people. Diet kept coming up.”
Afterward, Barnard headed to the hospital cafeteria, where he made a queasy connection between the ribbed chicken breast on his plate and the human chest he’d just examined.
In time, Barnard stopped eating meat. It took longer for him to drop all animal products – including eggs, milk and cheese – from his diet.
“I say I eat a vegan diet,” he says. “I don’t say I’m a vegan, because that sounds like I’m an alien.’”
A psychiatrist by training, Barnard received his medical degree from George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington. He practiced at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York before returning to Washington to found the PCRM in 1985.
‘Worst diet’ on Earth
Today, PCRM has grown to an organization with 60-plus employees and a
$9 million budget.
Much of its work is dedicated to education programs and lobbying Congress on issues like healthier food subsidies.
“It’s a big political football,” he says. “Every time I speak to a member of Congress, there’s a lobbyist from Coca Cola or from Mars right there, saying, ‘Who gives you more campaign contributions? Them or me?’ They win that battle every time.”
But the organization’s biggest concern is conducting research studies to show how diet can affect problems like rheumatoid arthritis or migraines.
Barnard is especially proud of a National Institutes of Health-supported study that showed how a plant-based diet reduced weight, boosted resting metabolism and reversed insulin resistance in patients with Type 2 diabetes. PCRM’s dietary strategy is now acknowledged in the American Diabetes Association’s guidelines for clinicians.
“Today, I find diabetes the most exciting condition,” he says. “People come in and they’re terrified, because they know someone who has lost their eyesight or their right foot because of this disease. They come in with these terrible worries and what we can do is turn it all around.”
Barnard attributes the country’s diabetes epidemic – along with heart disease, obesity and colorectal cancer – to America’s increased intake of sugar and animal proteins. He cites medical research that shows how animal fats and even some vegetable fats permeate muscle and liver cells, making them resistant to the action of insulin.
“Our diet is the worst on the globe,” he says. “The average American eats 75 pounds more meat per year than we did a century ago. We’re eating more meat, more cheese and more sugar, and that’s why we’re obese.”
Of course, such views never fail to stir up controversy.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, a “nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies and consumers,” routinely accuses PCRM of disguising “animal rights propaganda” as medical advice.
In a 2009 Forum letter to the editor, a senior research analyst at the center calls PCRM a “radical animal rights group … that in turn is financially linked to the loony wingnuts at PETA.”
Closer to home, Barnard’s group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the use of sedated pigs in the former MeritCare Medical Center’s advanced trauma training courses in 2009.
Barnard does say that animal protection, especially of animals used for research, is one of PCRM’s missions.
As for the Center for Consumer Freedom, Barnard says they represent fast-food chains and food manufacturers.
“They discovered where the real money is. It’s all industry money. It’s totally dishonest what they do,” he says.
Help for Alzheimer’s?
Barnard routinely receives letters from people all over the globe who have lost weight and reversed their diabetes with his diet strategies.
One came from a Pinckney, Mich., woman who had battled diabetes for 30 years. The woman wrote that she had suffered kidney damage and congestive heart failure.
Since trying Barnard’s reverse-diabetes diet, the woman wrote that her A1C blood sugars have dropped to 5.6 (normal range for non-diabetics is between 4 and 6 percent) and she’s lost 70 pounds.
“You have probably saved my life,” she wrote.
Barnard says he saw the diet reap similar health benefits in his own family. When his mother, Margaret Barnard, was diagnosed with high cholesterol, he convinced her to go vegan.
After two months on the diet, her cholesterol dropped 80 points. The doctor was so shocked that he double-checked the lab results, Barnard says.
Unfortunately, he adds, his parents stopped eating vegan after they moved into a retirement home. “My mother’s cholesterol went back up, she went back on medicine, and she’s paying a pretty serious price for it,” he says.
Other family health issues prompted Barnard to work on his next project: a book, due for release in March 2013, about combating Alzheimer’s disease.
“There’s nothing worse than having your brain shut down while your heart continues to beat and to sit in a chair in the corner of your room totally lost for five or six years. That’s what happened to my grandparents and that’s what happened to my father before he died,” he says.
Barnard says some of his anti-Alzheimer’s strategies involve nutrition, “but there’s more to it than that. What is good for the heart is definitely good for the brain.”
Although Barnard’s books and nutritional theories have made inroads, he says there is still much work to do.
In some ways, the term “insurmountable” still applies.
Even so, Barnard says he’s seen progress.
“Today if you go into Barnes & Noble, you will see shelves upon shelves of vegetarian and vegan books. President Clinton has gone vegan, and Serena and Venus Williams and Meredith Vieira just said ‘I’m going vegan.’ The world has just changed. We have to go a long way, because let’s not forget where we started.”
Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send a letter to the editor.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525