By Susan Thurston
While growing up in a family of North Dakota cattle ranchers, Dr. Neal Barnard lived on roast beef, baked potatoes and corn. Italian food was considered exotic. Chinese and Thai simply didn't exist.
His tastes drastically changed right before medical school when he was working in a Minnesota hospital morgue. A man died of a heart attack apparently due to fatty buildup from bacon, eggs and other high-cholesterol food.
After the autopsy, Barnard went the cafeteria for lunch. On the menu were ribs.
"I looked at it and it smelled like the body I had been working on,'' he said. "I didn't become a vegetarian on the spot, but I could not eat it. As time went on, and I started to learn more about the medical side of things, it was best to make a change.''
That revelation led Barnard to his current role as a nationally known nutrition researcher, author and health advocate. Just don't call him a vegan.
"I don't say I am a vegan because that sounds like I've got a red tie-dye shirt,'' he said. "What I say is that I follow a vegan diet. I use it as a word for foods, not people.''
Barnard, 57, comes to the University of South Florida on Sunday to speak about the benefits of a vegan diet and his new book, 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart. In an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., he spoke about the true culprit of childhood obesity and the absurdity of limiting portions of beans and broccoli.
What's noteworthy about the newly released federal nutrition guidelines?
For the first time they devoted substantial space to vegan and vegetarian diets. It's the best ever. Having said that, there's a couple of major flaws. When they say what to eat more of, they are very specific. Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains. When it comes to what to eat less of, they start talking in code. Eat less cholesterol and saturated fat. As if your average consumer can rattle off the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat they are eating. They can't. They've done that specifically because they are afraid of the meat industry. But they are the federal government. They are dealing with obesity and other problems, and they've got to be honest.
Are the lower sodium limits doable?
It's very doable, but the average consumer has no idea what they are eating. The truth is, it's a little bit of a distraction. It's a good thing to reduce sodium, but on a scale of one to 10, it's a three — while meat and cheese are a nine. If I take a person who has high blood pressure and they reduce their sodium, their blood pressure will fall just a few points. If I put that person on a low-fat vegan diet, their blood pressure will drop dramatically.
The guidelines talk about limiting portion sizes, drinking water and eating more fruits and vegetables. Isn't that obvious?
Yes, but apparently, we have to do something. But I don't think you have to worry about your portion size of broccoli, brown rice, beans or apples. If you have a kid who says, "Mommy, I ate three apples,'' she's not going to spank him. Where portion sizes are an issue are for things that are bad for us.
Do you recommend daily calorie counting and calorie-counting phone apps and websites?
No, I don't think you need them. If you eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, your calories will naturally fall. These high-fiber foods fill you up without the calories.
What are your thoughts on Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity?
I'm still waiting to see how serious the administration is. Even naming it "Let's Move'' suggests that the problem is that kids aren't sweating enough, and I think that's a mistake. Researchers have looked at the causes of childhood obesity and the changes in physical activity and diet. And the changes in physical activity, while there for some kids, are not enough to account for the increase in obesity. If you tell a kid you've got to exercise off the calories they just ate in six chicken nuggets, that child has to run 3 ½ miles. In theory, you can force children to exercise off the calories we are stuffing down their throats, but the issue really is the input side.
Do you think it's possible to reverse the obesity epidemic?
Absolutely, and we've already started. The bad news is the number of people following really bad diets is the worst it's ever been. The good news is the number of people interested in healthy eating is also bigger than it's ever been. If you go into a health food store, it's not what it used to be 20 years ago: a little shop with dusty products, the cashier was named Sunshine and they were playing folk music. Go into a Whole Foods now, and it's packed. People are ready to change. We are now with diet where we were with tobacco 20 years ago.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.