Dr. Neal Barnard -- vegan legend is turning off those fat cells!
Dr. Neal Barnard's new book "Turning Off the Fat Cells" is just
out so we took this opportunity to catch up with him and see what
he's been up to recently. For those not in the know, Neal is the
President of the American Group "Physician's Committee for
Q. Neal please tell us about your organization
(PCRM) and your role within it?
A. When I founded PCRM in 1985, I was practicing at
a large New York City Hospital (St Vincent's). I became
troubled by the fact that doctors spent virtually no time with
prevention or nutrition, and was also bothered by continuing
unethical research practices, some of which involved animals
and others of which involved humans. Currently we have about
5000 doctors who belong to PCRM. We also publish the magazine
"Good Medicine", which reaches our 100,000 lay
Q. How did you research your latest book "Turning
Off the Fat Genes?"
A. PCRM has been doing clinical research trials with
Georgetown University for several years. There is also
tremendous research literature on the effects of genes on
weight and how their expression can be changed. I felt that it
was essential for people to learn about it.
Q. This new breakthrough research of yours suggests
that some genes -- including those that shape the human
body -- adapt to outside influences. Please tell us more about
A. We are used to thinking that the actions of genes
cannot be changed. And, for traits like eye colour or gender,
that is true. But the genes for storing fat or burning it are
not dictators giving orders. I think of them more like
committees making suggestions, which is to say that we can
influence their actions.
It's not complicated. The fact is, you are doing it every
time you eat. The foods you choose turn some gene effects on
and others off. Food is the single biggest trigger for the
genes that affect our weight.
Q. How does one activate "thin" genes to lose weight
and suppress the "fat" genes in the process?
A. Here's an example: Everybody has a gene for fat
storage, which is located on chromosome 8, and its effects
become obvious on our thighs and waistlines. But it
essentially shuts off if you keep fat out of the foods you
eat. If your fat-storage machinery has nothing to work with --
no fat to store, that is -- it quits. To put it in a nutshell:
Number One, shut down the fat-storage gene by leaving the fat
out of your diet. That means swapping the greasy meat sauce on
your spaghetti for a light marinara, or trading your meat taco
for a bean burrito. Avoiding fats -- animal fats and vegetable
oils -- is as important as ever. Number Two, boost the
fat-burning genes with slow-release carbs -- beans, pasta,
vegetables. Don't follow the high-protein fad approach that
avoids carbs completely. (High protein diets encourage the
progression of heart blockages and do not promote long-term
weight loss for most people). Third, keep your appetite-taming
gene (on chromosome 7; the appetite regulator leptin is its
product) working right by eating regularly and avoiding
low-calorie diets. There is much more, but that will get you
Q. How do genes influence one's exercise?
A. Surprisingly enough, there are genes that
determine your exercise ability. If you really cannot stand
running and jogging, for example, it is not due to weak will.
It is because your genes did not give your developing muscles
the same rich blood vessel network that athletes have, so you
tend to tire easily.
With an exercise programme, however, you can get much of
the same advantage that people who have these genetic
advantages already have.
Q. All the recipes in your new book are vegan.
Please tell us about your views on veganism and how you
arrived at those views.
A. I grew up in North Dakota, and come from a long
line of cattle ranchers. Once I arrived in medical school, it
became clear to me that the diets so many people are on -- and
that I had grown up with myself -- are major contributors to
health problems; heart disease, many forms of cancer,
diabetes, hypertension, overweight, and many others. Research
has clearly shown that getting away from animal products helps
reverse heart disease and has a very powerful preventative
effect on other health problems.
In my own life, I decided to leave meat off my plate in
medical school, but was a bit slow to realise that dairy
products and eggs are not health foods either. I have been
following a vegan diet now since the 1980s, and find it not
only healthier, but also much more attractive than the chunks
of meat that were on my plate as a child.
Q. You have said that the same diet
that is best for losing weight is also optimal for enhancing
health and well being. So it's more complicated than just
following a vegan diet then?
A. A vegan diet takes care of most of what we need
to do. But you'll also want to minimize the use of oils
generally, because while olive oil and other vegetable oils
are better for your heart than chicken fat, they are as
fattening as animal fats.
For people with very resistant weight problems, I recommend
favouring carbohydrates that release their sugars very slowly,
as I mentioned earlier. For example, white bread releases its
sugars a bit too quickly, while rye or pumpernickel release
them very slowly, which is an advantage. "Turn Off the Fat
Genes" has charts to show which foods are which. Also, be sure
to include in a good source of Vitamin B-12 in your diet. It's
easy to do, and important.
Q. What makes your diet on
weight-loss different from all other diets on weight-loss?
A. There certainly are lots of them, aren't there? I
wrote this book to show how the body actually works. I also
wanted to relate the findings of our own research studies. We
help people to begin truly healthful diets, and it is
absolutely wonderful to see, not only their success, but also
their delight at their ability to break old habits and feel
really healthy for a change.
In our previous studies, we have shown that diet changes do
more than bring weight-loss. They lower cholesterol levels,
get hormones into better balance (as we have found in our
studies on diet, PMS, and menstrual pain), help reduce
arthritis symptoms, and have many other benefits.
Q. Are there any actual foods that
"fuel" fat genes and boost "thin" genes?
A. Chicken fat, beef fat, fish fat, fried foods
these are the foods that fuel our fat genes by giving them raw
materials for building body fat. On the other hand, all the
foods from the legume group (that is, beans, lentils, and
peas), as well as most vegetables and fruits release their
natural sugars very slowly as to allow the body to minimize
its need for insulin (insulin can slow fat-burning). These
same healthy foods are extremely low in fat and high in fibre,
so they satisfy the appetite.
In our research we use low-fat, vegan diets and find that
the resulting weight-loss is about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per week,
week after week after week. We also see dramatic improvements
in cholesterol. We reported last year in the American Journal
of Cardiology the greatest cholesterol lowering ever found in
women under 50. It occurred in 5 weeks, simply using a low-fat
Q. Where do you think we are with
gene research at the moment? I mean, is there a possibility
that there might be found say a gene to counter the effects of
menopause for example?
A. I am not so sure that we'd want to eliminate
menopause. After all, if human fertility went on indefinitely,
we'd have no end to health problems and population problems.
If anything, it would be helpful to see puberty arrive later
and menopause arrive a bit earlier.
But yes, scientists are continually unravelling the effects
of genes. This does not mean, however, that we will always be
the masters of what we find. Many genes exert very powerful
effects. Genes for diabetes risk, for example, are widespread,
and we cannot surgically excise these genes from our
chromosomes. The good news is if we follow a healthy diet and
lifestyle, we counteract their expression.
Q. PCRM has taken a very exciting
stance for animal rights, given that we live in a
humanocentric culture, PCRM holds governments accountable for
gross negligence in allowing vivisection to flourish at the
expense of human health. Have I got it right?
A. We promote higher standards in research, both
technically and ethically. It is important to focus research
on human disease, and modern techniques allow us to do that,
with ease. The use of animals in research presents major
ethical problems, as you know. But it also interferes with
efforts to translate their findings into practical
conclusions. When we set aside animal experimentation and
focus instead on the human condition, assuming that our human
studies are carefully planned and closely monitored, we engage
in an ethical enterprise that advances science in a way that
no other method can match.