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Can a vegan diet reverse diabetes?

Dr Neal Barnard's research shows that a low-fat vegan diet can help alleviate symptoms in a number of medical conditions, including cancer, arthritis, menstrual difficulties and can even reverse diabetes. He spoke with Katrina Fox.

How has your book and your research been received by the American Diabetes Association?

Well I’d have to say very positively. One might think we’re really challenging the conventional diabetes diet but having said that, it constantly evolves and changes, and the ADA, while it has been promoting a certain way of thinking about diabetes diets, they were kind enough to publish our initial findings in their  journal Diabetes Care [in 2006].

Also, either I or my colleagues have presented at their conferences every year. That doesn’t mean they have wholeheartedly thrown out all their other diet approaches or changed their journal title to Vegan Diabetes Care. But what we are seeing now are very positive steps towards acceptance of a low-fat vegan diet of being not only good for diabetes but the optimal diet for everybody. And that’s something that would have been a very radical idea not so long ago. 

You toured  Australia recently to promote your latest book The Reverse Diabetes Diet. What was the reaction to your visit? 

Just before I was in Australia, I was with my parents in North Dakota which is cattle country in the US and the reaction there when I did interviews is ‘Don’t you realise, Neal, you’re stepping on the toes of local industry?’

My answer is that cattle ranchers aren’t our enemy they are our family; they have the same risk as everyone else – they got into this before it was clear what it meant for health and they have to transition out of it just as the tobacco industry [workers] had to transition out of theirs. So it’s not a battle it has to be a joint effort.

And in Australia I’ve gotten the same kind of question [and comments such as] ‘We love our beef and our cattle ranchers’ and of course we do but at the same time it’s clear there are reasons why we are seeing more obesity than ever before, why Australians have always had higher heart disease rates compared to people in Asia for whom the diet staple is not meat but rice. 

It seems that people with diabetes are willing to give the programme a go and that the ‘battle’ if you like is going to be with medical professionals such as GPs and dieticians and convincing them of its worth. Why is this? 

I’ve actually found in the US that 99 out of 100 physicians is delighted to hear a patient is going on a vegan diet. Doctors are so used to imagining people only want to take a  pill and are resistant to changing their diets. I don’t believe that for a second – they want to throw their pills away, they don’t want the artificiality of it. So when doctors find someone who wants to improve their diet, they’re thrilled.

The American Medical Association in 2007 passed a resolution unanimously that children should have access to vegetarian and vegan foods in schools. They weren’t saying every child should be raised as a vegan but that if schools don’t serve it they’re making a mistake. They also said non-dairy milks should be available in schools.

The book offers a great education for people who have not considered a vegan diet before, but there’s a lot of vegan ‘junk food’ out there too, eg chocolate, cakes etc, as well as sugar and vegetable oils added to a lot of veggie burgers. 

It’s a sign of success in a way. In the ’70s when you followed a vegan diet, the veggie burgers tasted like cardboard and soya milk was powder. The manufacturers have figured out how to make soya milk that tastes great and comes in 16 different flavours; they’ve discovered how to make veggie hotdogs, veggie deli slices, even vegan cheeses that don’t taste like glue.

Having said that, I view it as a success in that there is demand for these foods but I view them as a bridge. For a person who is used to eating meaty diets, if they’re having a veggie hot dog, it may not be the pinnacle of vegan art but at the same time it’s a lot better than the hot dog they’re replacing, so I consider them as a bridge to healthy eating.

Your clinical research shows that a low-fat vegan diet can help conditions, including diabetes, arthritis and joint pain, cancer and menstrual difficulties, yet the perception particularly of vegan is that it’s an ‘extreme’ diet. What is your response to this? 

What’s an extreme diet is the one I grew up on and that people eat every day. It’s the equivalent of buying a new car that takes unleaded petrol. Let’s say I decide to put diesel in it. It’s not just going to get poor mileage, it’s going to put out bad exhaust – everything will be wrong with your car until one day the helpful gas station attention says ‘Why don’t you put unleaded in it, it’s what it’s designed for?’ and everything gets better.

If you put into your body something it’s not designed for – and we are not carnivores, we are not cats, or dogs; our canine teeth do not protrude – we are great apes which are essentially vegetarian, so if you decide to eat like a cat, everything gets worse: your digestion, your skin, especially with dairy consumption. You get acne and think it’s due to adolescence or chocolate, people’s coronary arteries clog up, cancer rates are higher and they think it’s caused by old age, but that has nothing to do with it, except in so far as the longer you are exposed to toxic agents, the more problems you experience. 

The foods you recommend include a lot of cooked foods. What is your opinion on the raw food (vegan) movement that seems to be gaining in popularity? 

I am quite convinced that people did not evolve cooking anything and raw is definitely the way to go. But I am not 100 per cent sure which foods that means. People evolved in north-east Africa, we spread out over the world, shipping products from one place to another and lot of products we take for granted were not part of our diet in our earlier chapters of our existence. For example, potatoes are new-world foods. Tomatoes, peanuts, maize same story.

We mixed things up and have food all over the place and when I wrote Foods that Fight Pain I wondered why the foods that trigger migraine – chocolate, dairy, citrus fruits, eggs, meat, wheat, nuts, tomatoes – are the same as for digestive problems and arthritis and I came to the conclusion that they are foods not natural to humans. I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with them but they trigger [these conditions].

Some foods are more digestible cooked such as broccoli, rice and grains. But bottom line, I think raw is good, the more the better and I’m personally in the process of trying to figure out which foods are best for us. 

You are the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Do you have links to PETA?

How safe is it to switch immediately to a vegan diet? Are there any considerations for people with medical conditions, particularly diabetes? 

There is no danger to eating healthy foods. It’s like when a person quits smoking,  there’s no danger but there can be withdrawal. With cigarettes it’s huge cravings, the same with meat.

There’s one exception though. With people who are taking medications for their diabetes, as long as they’re on really bad diets, the medications won’t need to be withdrawn. Once they change to a low-fat vegan diet, their medications can become too strong and they need to back off or eliminate them. They’re on drugs to lower their blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure and they may not need those and that can be a bit dangerous.

If person is injecting insulin every day then on a healthy diet, their blood sugar can go really low. So they must tell their doctor they’re going on a vegan diet. 

Vegan diets are often associated with low iron. What’s the deal with this?

There’s plenty of iron in a vegan diet and more than in a meat-based one. Green leafy vegetables and broccoli have lots of iron in them, and beans. So broccoli, kale, swiss chard, beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas are loaded with iron as well as calcium. But the iron is in non-haem form. What that means is it’s more absorbable if the body is iron-poor and less absorbable if the body is on iron overload. Iron from meat is in haem form so it’s absorbable all the time.

So people who are meat eaters tend to become iron overloaded and it increases the risk of free radical damage and heart disease. So you get more iron from a vegan diet but it’s in a form your body can regulate. You’d run into trouble if you never ate a green leafy vegetable and no beans in your life – that’s not a healthy balanced diet. For vegetarians who are energetic milk consumers, it cuts iron absorption by half.

Oprah tried the vegan diet for a month and saw its benefits, yet she stopped short of saying she’d adopt it permanently. What would you say to her if you had the opportunity? 

Smokers and drinkers almost never succeed on their first time giving up. That’s expected. Let’s face it temptations are everywhere and as I wrote in my book Breaking the Food Seduction, foods have physical effects that explain why cheese, meat and chocolate have an effect on us that strawberries don’t, so it’s not surprising to me that people want to dip their toe in the water rather than dive in head first.

You mentioned on the Ellen show that your mother eventually read one of your books and gave up animal products and her cholesterol dropped by 70 points in just six weeks. How is she doing?  

She and my father recently moved into a retirement home where I had to have a very long talk with the chef because the chef has the idea that everyone who has lived into their golden years must be punished by having the most unhealthful food. He’s trying to kill them off, don’t know what that’s about so I had a very stern talk with him and he’s promised to do better! 

The organisation you founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsbible Medicine (PCRM0 has been very influential in many ways over the years: from extensive clinical research that shows a low-fat vegan diet can help with medical conditions, to getting government to stop the dairy industry making certain claims in adverts through to getting medical schools to drop animal experimentation. Tell us about your campaign against fast-food operators in the US. 

When you grill chicken wings, carcinogens form, called heterocyclic amine. Grilled chicken is a popular thing because people don’t want fried as grilled is lower in fat. It’s so popular that Americans now eat 1 million chickens per hour – that’s more than 9 billion per year.

I sent my research team in California to all the major fast-food places and got 100 samples of grilled chicken and every single sample contained heterocyclic amines. Well, there’s law in California that says you can’t serve carcinogens in food unless you warn customers it’s there, so we brought a  lawsuit against them all.

Burger King called us and said they wanted to settle and we said ‘You have to have a warning’ and that’s exactly what they agreed and our warning is on the walls of Burger King in California. We still have lawsuit against others including McDonalds. 

What’s next for the PCRM? 

The PCRM is currently wrestling with the US government. The government promotes very unhealthy food especially in children’s diets and the US government buys up commodities to shore up prices. If the beef price falls they’ll buy it up to create demand, and what do you do with $12 million worth of cheese? They put it in hospitals, prisons and schools. We are trying to stop that and it’s a major battle.

Visit the PCRM website for details of its work and for  more on Dr Barnard's books.

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