The following is a conversation between Dr. Neal Barnard, Author of Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health, and Founder of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. 


Dr. Neal Barnard

Denver: You might ask whether we need still another book on diet and health, but the one we’re about to discuss is a little different. It addresses hormones and health, and the impact certain foods have on our hormonal balance. The book is called Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health. And it’s a pleasure to have with us its author who is also the Founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. Neal Barnard

Good evening, Neal, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Neal: Thank you. Great to be with you today. 

Denver: Before we get to the book, tell us a little bit about that nonprofit organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 

Neal: The Physicians Committee got started in 1985. I was working here in New York at the time at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was just out of residency, and I was struck by a couple  things. 

Frankly, it was great medicine. It was a great hospital. However, like every hospital, we didn’t do anything about a heart attack until it came into the emergency room door. In other words, we weren’t doing anything to prevent it. We didn’t do anything about breast cancer until you found it on the mammogram, or prostate cancer until you found it on examination. And I thought, “Wait, wait, wait. We have to intervene so that the heart attack doesn’t happen. And so that the mammogram never shows up anything. And so that the—”

Denver: What a radical idea!

Neal: Well, it – then and today – is still not emphasized like it needs to be.

I also was concerned about a lot of other issues. We needed more research in a number of areas, and research had to be done right – in my view, ethically. Let’s study human beings instead of rats and mice and dogs. 

I thought what needed to be done was a group of doctors had to come together and express these opinions, and I had the naive idea that I would set up a committee of 12 or 15 doctors who would be the Physicians Committee. We’ve grown. We probably have 12- or 15,000 doctors now, which is good. Never enough, but we’ve grown in all these areas. 

A hormone is a message. It goes from one part of your body to another… they are messages, but you can run into danger by being too low or too high. 

Denver: Before we get to the book, let’s get everyone grounded. And by that, I mean I want to ask you: What are hormones?  And what are their impact on our bodies?

Neal: A hormone is a message. It goes from one part of your body to another. For example, the thyroid is at the base of your neck, and it makes thyroid hormone that goes to your muscles and the other parts of the body to give them energy. Or insulin is a hormone made in your pancreas, which is right behind your belly button, and it goes to your muscle cells to help sugar to get into the muscles, or it goes to your liver to help sugar get into the liver. 

So, hormones are messages, but sometimes you have too few messages, like the pancreas isn’t making enough insulin. Or in other cases, you can be making too many messages. The thyroid is cranking out that hormone, and you’re feeling out of balance. So they are messages, but you can run into danger by being too low or too high. 

Denver: Well, let’s get to Your Body in Balance. How did you get interested in hormonal health in the first place?

Neal: By accident.

Denver: Well, it’s a good way.

Neal: I was sitting at my desk and the phone rang, and it was a young woman who said, “Dr. Barnard, my mother told me to call you.” I said, “What is it?” She said, “I can’t get out of bed.” Many women have menstrual cramps: one day a month, it might be severe; maybe 1 in 10, they’re just off the scale. And that was her situation. She had a business meeting. The next day. She had to get on a plane. She said, “I can’t go anywhere. What can I do?” I said, “Let me give you some painkillers for a couple of days.”

But I started to think: How can we prevent this from happening in the future? And I made just an educated guess, which is that if she, over the next month, ate no animal products at all – no dairy, no meat, no egg, nothing – and kept oils to a bare minimum, I thought she had a half a chance of this experience not happening. 

Now, the reason that I guessed that was that we have known from breast cancer research that when women reduce animal products in their diet and they get away from fatty foods, the estrogen, which is a hormone, diminishes in their blood, so it’s not driving the growth of cancer. In her case, I thought, “What’s happening in your body?” What’s happening is that your uterus is under the influence of estrogen. It’s getting too much of that, and that’s what’s driving your symptoms. It worked like a charm. It cured her.

And so, I then did a research study with Georgetown University’s Department of Ob-gyn, and it helped lots of people. So then after that, NIH, the National Institutes of Health, gave us a grant to test a new diet for people with type 2 diabetes. It’s different…it’s not estrogen now, it’s insulin, but we found we could get insulin working better – a lot better.

And I want to tell you something – for me, that changed my world. My dad in North Dakota was the diabetes expert for Fargo and for Eastern North Dakota. He used to come home every night at six o’clock. I never once heard him say that anybody with diabetes got better. He was always just fighting this inexorable decline. When we started doing our NIH trial in Type 2 diabetes, we discovered people not only getting better, but in some cases the disease went away. I mean it was gone. And I thought, “I had never seen diabetes just be gone before.” 

Denver: Vanished.

Neal: So I thought people need to know about this. Let’s say you’re a person who’s got diabetes. You have high blood pressure; your cholesterol is up; you’re on medications, and you’re thinking, “There’s not really a light at the end of this tunnel. This is what I’m going to do.” 

The reason I wrote Your Body in Balance is that… if we change our diet enough, these things can turn around. I can get you off your medications or reduce the amount, and you can actually feel good again. 

Denver: Well, you said a moment ago, it helped a lot of people. One of those people it helped was Katherine Lawrence, who was an Air Force officer. Tell us her story. 

Neal: Katherine lives in Dallas. She grew up in Louisiana. She was actually one of the first people in Iraq because she was building the air bases in Iraq in 2003. In a war zone, you eat basically nothing, and you work really hard; you don’t gain weight. But when her tour of duty was done, she came back home, she tucked into mac and cheese and everything you could imagine.

Denver: 48 in a row or something, wasn’t it? 

Neal: It’s funny. Yes. A friend of hers knew that she liked those blue boxes of macaroni and cheese dinners—

Denver: We all know those blue boxes, Kraft. 

Neal: —gave her a case of 48 of them, and Katherine actually ate them 48 days straight, if you can believe it. 

Anyway, but what’s not so funny is she gained weight, and as time went on, she started getting pain in her abdomen that got worse and worse and worse and worse. Then the doctor finally did a laparoscopy, which is you make an incision, a little tiny incision below the belly button, and you look inside with the scope. And the doctor sewed her up and said, “We got our diagnosis. You have endometriosis.” 

This is a condition where cells from the uterus are now implanting all around the abdomen. They can implant on the intestinal tract. They can implant on the ovaries and the fallopian tubes and strangle them and lead to infertility. And this was what she had, and she was getting worse and worse and worse. And her doctor finally said, “Okay. Medicines haven’t helped you. Hormone treatments haven’t helped you. What we’ve got left is hysterectomy. We just take everything out, and you’re going to feel okay.” 

She and her husband were newlyweds, and she thought—

Denver: You want a family. 

Neal: Yes. But she wasn’t getting anywhere, and so she said, “Fine, let’s do the procedure,” and six weeks later, she went in. 

But in that interim, she heard about this diet we’re describing where you take the animal products out; you go really low in fat, and she started to feel better, a lot better. But she’s very dutiful. She went in for the procedure anyway on the appointed day. The doctor opens her up, and an hour later, Katherine woke up in the recovery room. And the doctor looked at her and he said, “Katherine. I opened you up. I sewed you right back up. I didn’t take your uterus out. We didn’t do the procedure at all.” She said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Your endometriosis – I can’t explain it – it’s gone. It’s gone.”

Denver: Vanished.

Neal: Her mother was in the room. Her mother said, “She went vegan.” The doctor said, “Stop it. Stop it. Food does not cause endometriosis,” the doctor explained, “and a diet change couldn’t possibly have made this go away. This had to be just a miracle.”

The truth is, what we believe happened, is that endometriosis is driven by estrogen. You take the estrogen away, it just stops. It regresses. So she goes on a diet that’s very high in fiber, very low in fat, that dials estrogen levels down. 

Denver: Fiber gets rid of the estrogen, right?  

Neal: Your body, it has a certain amount of wisdom. If you have extra estrogen in your blood, whether you’re a woman or, or even a man, the liver will take it out of the blood and send it into the intestinal tract where fiber carries it away. 

So if you’re on a mac and cheese diet, where the cheese has no fiber and the macaroni is white pasta—

Denver: Junk.

Neal: Well, it doesn’t have any…the fiber’s been removed, so the fiber is no longer there in the intestinal tract, and the estrogens are reabsorbed back in your blood.

So the point of the diet was to just get her hormones back into balance. It did. She’s cured. Katherine has three kids. 

Denver: That’s a great story. That really is.

Neal: In fact, she set up a center in Dallas to help women and men to—

Denver: And the one in the recovery room is now a grandma of three.

Neal: That’s exactly right. She’s got a center set up to help other people take back their lives. So my message is this: Cramps aren’t going to kill you, and infertility isn’t going to kill you, but the very same hormonal changes could. 

Let’s say you’re a man. You’ve got prostate cancer, and you’re thinking, “Okay. Well, it’s because I’m old. My doctor explained to me ‘everybody’s going to get prostate cancer if you’re just old enough.’” That’s one of these myths that is often reported. “I’ll track my PSA. I hope I’m alright.” Stop. Wait a minute. Do all those things. Do see a urologist. Do get medical care. But change your diet now because you don’t want to throw gasoline on a fire. And if you’re eating a diet high in animal products – the stuff that I grew up on in Fargo, North Dakota – you are encouraging the growth of prostate cancer, and it does not have to be that way. 

We have good randomized trials, I should say, where you put people on – I’m talking about older men with prostate cancer. You put them on a healthier diet. Their PSAs can go down. Instead of needing surgery, they can go on a golf course. So don’t get me wrong. Diet is not perfect. The human body is frail. We are vulnerable to things.

Researchers have been troubled by the fact that dairy-eating countries have a lot of prostate cancer; the ones that don’t tend not to.

Denver: We’re all individuals. It’s going to have impact on someone and not on someone else. 

One of the biggest takeaways from this book though, Neal, was the whole section on dairy. because I think a lot of us have heard about meat and animal fat, but this whole thing on dairy, it can be truly insidious. Tell us what the potential consequences are of us consuming a lot of dairy. 

Neal: There are many. I was just talking about men and prostate cancer. Researchers have been troubled by the fact that dairy-eating countries have a lot of prostate cancer; the ones that don’t tend not to. I’m talking about, say, Japan; that’s not a country where people eat ice cream and cheesecake, or it used to not be.

If you’re raising your kids on this dairy diet – we all kind of got the idea that it was natural to drink three glasses of milk a day – you’re sowing the seeds for infertility, we believe, according to the best research we have, in kids and sowing the seeds for prostate cancer yourself. 

Denver: Yes. Until the ‘60s maybe when everybody started coming in. 

Neal: Yes, and really even not until maybe even the ‘90s and 2000 when it became bigger. Dairy became a much more common thing. Here in the United States, it’s been a big thing. If you put prostate cancer on a map, you see it clusters around dairy. 

So Harvard researchers looked to see whether that’s true in this country, and they found it is in two huge studies: the Physician’s Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. They found that men consuming the most milk and other dairy products had between 34% and 60% higher risk of getting prostate cancer, particularly aggressive prostate cancer. So the question is: Why? 

And what we believe is the reason is that milk was made by nature, if I can put it that way, by a cow, to make a calf grow. When the milk goes down the calf’s esophagus, it pretty soon stimulates the production of something called insulin-like growth factor in the calf’s body; that makes things grow. But if you’re a grown man, you don’t want things to grow in your body. If you take prostate cancer cells and put them in a test tube with IGF-1, they grow. So we believe that milk is causing the elaboration of growth factors in your blood. You take it out of the diet, that can stop. 

But milk has a wide variety of effects. It’s linked to infertility, or I should say a rapid loss of fertility in women. So that a woman who’s…she’s starting her career, she’s 23, she’s at maximum fertility. But she says, “Look. This is not my time to raise a baby. Let me wait ‘til 10 years.” And her mother says, “Darling, don’t wait too long. Your biological clock is ticking. Once you’re hitting 40, it’s much harder to get pregnant.” That’s all true. 

In the United States, the drop in fertility between roughly age 30 and 40 is maybe about 80%.  Well, in countries that do not consume dairy, you see a much greater preservation of fertility. In this case, I don’t think it’s estrogen. I think it’s the milk sugar – lactose – because in a woman’s body, it breaks down to release a small sugar called galactose that damages the ovary. 

So, here’s my point. You want to be a grandpa. You want to be a grandma. If you’re raising your kids on this dairy diet – we all kind of got the idea that it was natural to drink three glasses of milk a day – you’re sowing the seeds for infertility, we believe, according to the best research we have, in kids and sowing the seeds for prostate cancer in yourself. 

Cheese is 70% fat, mostly bad fats, saturated fat. It’s higher in salt than potato chips. And frankly, if it were any worse, it would be Vaseline.

Denver: And then there are dairies, and there are dairies, and one of the worst would be cheese, to the point that you’re looking to get an FDA label on it. Why is cheese the worst, or among the worst of all the dairies?

Neal: It’s a funny thing. Cheese smells like old socks, and yet it’s one of these things that people get hooked on.  

Denver: It’s addictive! 

Neal: In the research studies that we’ve done, we put people on completely vegan diets, and they will often say, “Doc, the only thing I really miss…” they don’t miss the steak surprisingly enough. They miss cheese. And so, we were trying to figure out why that is. 

But to make a long story short, yes. Cheese is 70% fat, mostly bad fats, saturated fat. It’s higher in salt than potato chips. And frankly, if it were any worse, it would be Vaseline. It’s just this really unhealthy food. Back a century ago, that didn’t matter too much because the USDA tracked cheese intake starting in 1909: the average American consumed less than four pounds a year. Today, it’s 35-, 36-, 37 pounds a year, plus milk, plus ice cream. 

Dairy comes out of a cow who is typically pregnant. They’re impregnated on dairies annually to keep their milk intake up, and a pregnant cow makes estrogen, so the estrogen gets into the cheese. Researchers in Rochester, New York found that the more cheese men ate, the lower their sperm counts. What we think is going on is Hank is dosing himself with female hormones, little bits every day, and it’s interfering with his sperm production. 

Denver: Would that be one of the explanations for “man boobs?”

Neal: Possibly. Yes. It is funny. Man boobs – breast development in a man. Some people have mistakenly blamed soy products. You go on the internet, they’ll say tofu.

Denver: I’ve seen that. 

Neal: They’ll say tofu. And what they mean is that tofu has what are called isoflavones that initially people thought that they would have estrogenic actions, which they do not, or they don’t have this kind of estrogenic action. 

The reason for man boobs…go to the beach on a July afternoon, and if there’s a heavy-set guy there who has some breast development, go and ask him how much tofu he’s eaten this past weekend.

Denver: You ask him.

Neal: Well, the fact is he doesn’t eat soy. He doesn’t eat tofu. He’s eating burgers and chips. And the reason he got man boobs is because as a man gains weight, the fat cells in his body convert testosterone to estrogen. And so, it’s his excess weight that led to the production of estrogen, and that causes breast development. It’s not soy.

Denver: Do you think this incredible increase in consuming cheese has led to depression? Because there does seem to be a correlation. 

Neal: It may be. Yes. I got to tell you, that was one of the huge surprises for us as well. Years ago, we were doing a study at Geico, the car insurance company.

Denver: Down the street from you, isn’t it? In Washington. 

Neal: Yes, three-, four blocks away from my office. That’s exactly right. And so we did a study with them really for diabetes and for weight loss. But at the Geico headquarters, we made sure the food service served plant-based meals, so they had the vegan chili and whatever it was, and anybody who wanted to go vegan could have a class for 18 weeks. In the course of it, their diabetes improved; they lost weight, all that stuff.  But we started noticing the depression got better and anxiety got better, and other researchers have looked at much the same kind of thing. 

I think we need more research to tell you the truth, but the themes that seem to be emerging is that vegetables and fruits in particular seem to be helpful, probably because they have an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain, and they have a better effect on the gut. They change your gut bacteria to be ones that don’t produce negative chemicals that can harm the brain. But with regard to cheese, cheese actually has mild opiates in it. That could be a part of this puzzle as well.

Denver: Now, if you go to a vegan diet, are you getting all the nutrients you need?  Or do you need to take a supplement like B12. What’s the verdict on that?

Neal:  Great question. You should take B12. Overall, your nutrition is dramatically better than an omnivorous diet, and we study that. People are on a diet, and we do a nutrient analysis of whatever they’re eating, and then we put them on a completely vegan diet. What you see is their numbers all get better. They’re having much more of antioxidants. They’re getting vitamin C. They’re getting beta carotene. They’re getting the right amount of protein, not the dramatic excess. They’re not getting any or very little bad fat. They’re getting no cholesterol. Much more fiber. So a vegan diet is much more nutritious. 

However, you should take a vitamin B12 supplement. You need it for healthy nerves. You need it for a healthy brain, but it’s not made by animals or by plants. It’s made by bacteria.  And just to make it short and simple, people should really be supplementing vitamin B12.

Denver: You mentioned earlier in our conversation:the thyroid. People have common problems with thyroid. How can food help address those problems? 

Neal: The thyroid gland is responsible for energy, and a lot of people are low. The symptoms are vague that you’ll tell the doctor, “I’m just not myself. I’m blah, I’m sluggish. I’m kind of depressed. My hair doesn’t feel right; my skin doesn’t feel good, and I’m gaining a little bit of weight and whatever.” All these are very commonplace symptoms. 

But at some point, the doctor does a blood test and discovers that you’re low in thyroid. And so, the typical treatment – take thyroid replacement. Stop. Let’s go back into your kitchen. To make thyroid hormone, you need iodine. In 1924, the Morton Salt Company introduced iodized salt, the blue canister with a little girl and the umbrella. 

Denver: I remember the label. It’s not from 1920, but I know they had it right at the very bottom.

Neal: Well, I got to say it wiped out iodine deficiency. However, now being sophisticated, I’m going to the store, and I’m getting sea salt or Himalayan salt. It’s not iodized, so you might be missing iodine in your diet. You can bring iodized salt back, or frankly, my favorite source is sea vegetables. You go to a sushi bar. Don’t have the fish sushi unless you’re very well-insured, but have the cucumber roll or the asparagus roll or the sweet potato roll. That nori seaweed that’s around it, and all the other seaweeds, the wakame seaweed in the miso soup – they’re loaded with iodine. So that gives you the iodine you need to make thyroid hormone. 

But the bigger reason actually for hypothyroidism is that you have an antibody attack on your thyroid. It’s an autoimmune reaction that your thyroid is being attacked.

Denver: It’s detecting something that isn’t there and it goes to your thyroid. Would that be it? 

Neal: That’s exactly what we think is happening…is that your body makes antibodies to destroy viruses or destroy bacteria. Well, it’s not a virus, presumably. Something has triggered this defense system to make antibodies that are now attacking the thyroid. And what we think it might be is foreign proteins in food that you ate – dairy proteins. The highest prevalence of hypothyroidism in the United States appears to be in ovo-lacto vegetarians. In other words, they’re not eating meat, but they’re making up for it in cheese, and the lowest prevalence appears to be in vegans. 

Denver: Interesting.

Neal: For hyperthyroidism, here again, it’s an antibody attack that is causing the thyroid to be unregulated, so it’s now making too much hormone. Again, the lowest prevalence is in vegans. The highest prevalence is in omnivores who are dosing themselves with meat and dairy every day.

When I started writing Your Body in Balance, I didn’t expect this. I thought, “I’ve got to talk about the thyroid just so people know.” I started to discover there are a lot of people who are following the diet that we’re using, and their hypothyroidism, or in some cases, hyperthyroidism resolves, which beats the heck out of being on medication for the rest of your life. 

Denver: It sure does. 

Let’s talk about food intake and sleep. I saw a study the other day, Neal, that the average America is now sleeping five-and-a-half hours a night – that’s down 47 minutes from 2018 – and people reported having 105 terrible nights of sleep every year. What is the connection between food and good, sound sleep?

Neal: Sleep is really critically important. It has a physical effect, obviously, but it also has a psychological effect in that if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, everything else goes out the window. You’ll eat anything just to get through the day, and so your health kind of falls apart in other ways. 

Two things are really obvious. The first is caffeine. A cup of coffee metabolizes slower in some people than in others. And so, at 10 o’clock at night, there could be as much as maybe a quarter of the caffeine from your morning cup of Joe still going around in the brain, and it just makes your sleep a little lighter. You’re more likely to wake up early. 

Second obvious one is alcohol. A glass of wine will lull you to sleep. But about three or four in the morning, your liver has converted alcohol into what are called aldehydes that are stimulants. And so, you’ll wake up with this particular kind of crummy feeling of all the injustices that hit you the day before. So those are a couple of them. 

Exercise is important, and a lot of us have no physical activity during the day, so your body doesn’t feel a need for sleep. But I’ll give you one little tip. If after your five hours of sleep, it’s now three in the morning and you’re wide awake, go to the refrigerator and pull out some bread. It could be white bread. This is the one and only time Dr. Neal Barnard is going to tell you to eat white bread. 

Denver: He’s going to get you through the night.

Neal: Have a couple slices of white bread, chew it up, and lie down again. What happens is the carbohydrate is released rather quickly. It stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain and helps you to go back to sleep.

Denver: You also have a section in the book on chemicals, and one of them is BPA. What is that? Where do you find it? What is the peril that it holds? 

Neal: Bisphenol A. It’s a chemical that researchers have been studying for quite a while. There was a peculiar experiment done at Harvard where they brought in some volunteers, and they had them eat Progresso soup. Progresso soup – good brand, cans a little bit larger, sounds vaguely Italian. It’s got to be a cut above the other brands. But what they found is that after eating this soup, day after day, BPA showed up in urine tests in the participants. They did this study again, and now they made the vegetable soup from scratch. No can, no BPA in their urine. 

So, to make a long story short, the BPA is in the canned lining. It’s in the lining of the can.  There are cans that are not made with BPA, but it’s extremely common. It appears to be an endocrine disruptor, which is to say that it seems to perhaps have estrogenic actions and could cause perhaps fertility issues as well as sexual issues.

Anyway, here’s the bad part. You go to the store, and you think, “I don’t want any BPA. So I’m going to go to my health food store, and I’m going to get a can that says BPA-free,” and you’ll see them. And so you go, and you give the cashier your credit card, and you go out with your BPA-free can and your cashier’s receipt in your hand. Unbeknownst to you, the thermal paper that the receipt was printed on has BPA in the thermal coating. It’s now going right through your skin into your bloodstream–

Denver: I’d hate to be a cashier. There are like thousands of them. 

Neal: Researchers have actually looked at exactly that. If a cashier wears gloves, it doesn’t get in their blood, if they don’t, and they’re using the receipts every day, it does get in the bloodstream.

 So to tell you the truth, and let me be clear. If you happen to eat something in a BPA- containing can that was meaty and creamy, you’re going to get a lot more risk from the meat and cream than you are from the BPA. So if all we’re doing with our diet is getting rid of chemicals, that’s not doing enough.

…a migraine is not a tension headache. A migraine is a sledgehammer against your head… we found that when people eliminate dairy and a number of other foods, in many cases, their migraines go away.

Denver: That’s not enough. Yes.

Another thing I want to ask you about because it’s ubiquitous, I see it all over the place. I have no idea what it is – citric acid. Now, citric sounds good; acid doesn’t sound so good. What in the world is citric acid? 

Neal: Citric acid – you might imagine that it came from a lime or lemon or something like that.

Denver: It’s a citric part, sure.

Neal: Exactly, like citrus fruits, and it adds a tangy flavor to things. And so, it’s used not only in sodas, but many, many, many other foods. The problem with it is that citric acid appears to trigger some health issues. 

We were doing a migraine study not too many years ago, and it may not surprise you that when you take people – and by the way, a migraine is not a tension headache. A migraine is a sledgehammer against your head. It’s terrible. So anyway, we were doing a migraine study, and we found that when people eliminate dairy and a number of other foods, in many cases, their migraines go away.

I had a patient in this study whose trigger turned out to be citric acid, and we’ve seen this with other people as well. But it turns out that citric acid in their soda, wherever it is, did not come from a Florida orange grove or a lime tree. It came from China in a big vat of mushrooms. It’s genetically engineered from a mushroom in a mushroom broth, and traces of these allergenic mushrooms will end up in the citric acid. We think it may not be the citric acid molecule itself that’s causing problems, it might be all the stuff that tainted it when it’s being made. So stay tuned. We need to know more about it, but I have to say, I’ve become attentive to foods that have citric acid in it. You don’t need it. 

Denver: No. And it’s like in every food, it seems like. I see on every label, citric acid. 

When, Neal, did you switch to a plant-based diet, and what compelled you to do so?

Neal: The year before I went to medical school, I had an unusual experience.

I was working in Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, and I was the autopsy assistant. Whenever anybody died in the hospital, the pathologist would…he and I would do the autopsy. I would hold things and clean up and all this kind of stuff, and he would do the exam. But he knew I was going to go to medical school, so he kept teaching me stuff.

One day, a guy died in the hospital of a massive heart attack, probably from eating hospital food, but that’s another story. So anyway, the body is there in the cooler. We put the body on a table, and the pathologist removed a huge chunk of ribs from the chest, and we put the ribs on the table, and that exposed the heart. And he would say, “This is your bacon and eggs here, Neal. This is your…” because the arteries to the heart were narrowed by atherosclerosis. If you feel it with your gloved hand, it feels like a rock – rocks or crystals just all around this artery. And the same thing in the carotid arteries to the brain, meaning this person was headed for a stroke. 

End of the exam. The pathologist leaves the room. He’s written up massive systemic atherosclerosis, dah, dah, dah. I had to clean up. So I put the ribs back into the chest, and I sewed the skin up, and I cleaned everything, and then I went up to the cafeteria. And they were serving ribs for lunch.

Denver: I just saw this.

Neal: Well, it looked like a dead body, and it smelled like the body. And I didn’t become a vegetarian that day, but I couldn’t eat it. And as time went on, it started to work on me more and more. 

To put this in context, when I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, I personally drove cattle to slaughter. My dad had been in the cattle business before he went to medical school… and my uncles and everybody. That was the thing. But I made a decision that that was not health food, and that was the right decision. 

Denver: And in your book, you also have a lot of recipes. I think Lindsay Nixon is the one who did them for you. What’s your favorite? 

Neal: Yes. Well, I got to tell you, Lindsay S. Nixon – I asked her to do these really just because she is a terrific recipe developer. If you want to make recipes that are quick and simple but really tastes good, that’s Lindsay. It’s not 35 ingredients; it’s simple. So she sent me 65 recipes that are great. My favorite one is the chocolate cupcakes at the end, but she sent them with a note. She said, “Dr. Barnard, I didn’t tell you this. Here’s the recipes. I hope you’ll love them. But I found that the diet you’re recommending wiped out my menstrual cramps, too.” 

And I’ve started to discover since we’ve been talking about Your Body in Balance, everybody has an issue, whether it’s diabetes or their thyroid or extra weight they can’t lose, or their mood is just not where it should be. And I’m kind of on the warpath to make sure that doctors talk with their patients about what the patient can do for herself or himself. 

Denver: There’s a huge movement right now – food as medicine. Insurance companies are beginning to take a look at it, and we’ve had a number of shows on that. That’s really where we should begin, just natural ways to deal with it. But they’re slamming drugs at you. They are oversubscribing, aren’t they?

Neal: They are. Things  are starting to change though. Every August we have the international conference on nutrition and medicine sponsored by the Physicians Committee in Washington, D.C., and it would make your heart sing to see a thousand doctors all talking about healthy food and wanting to stop prescribing so darn many medications, wanting to not drag people into the operating room if you just don’t have to. 

Denver: Let me close with this, Neal. For those listening who maybe got a little dose of inspiration here and want to get started, but they’re not going to go from A to Z, what’s a doable step or two to get them on this path?

Neal: Step one: Take seven days and think about what you would eat if you weren’t eating animal products, and actually make a list of them. So for breakfast, every day I have cornflakes with milk. Maybe almond milk would work. So, if you never tried it, you’ve got seven days. For lunch, every day I go to the submarine sandwich place, and they make me a chicken sandwich. What would I have? I guess I could have the vegetable sandwich. Try that. At night, I eat Italian. So I have pasta with Alfredo sauce. Well, tonight, make it tomato sauce. So you got seven days. Write down a list of what you would eat. That’s step one. 

Step two: Take just three weeks – not forever – 21 days, and try eating those foods off your list and no animal products at all. You’re going to be a vegan, but it’s foods you picked, and it’s only three weeks.

Denver: And it’s going to end.

Neal: And it’s going to end. But except that what happens is at the end of 21 days, two things have happened. The first is you’re physically healthier; you’re losing weight. If you have diabetes, your blood sugar is getting better. But the second thing that people didn’t expect is they don’t really miss the foods that they thought they couldn’t live without before, and they’re finding cool new things. What happens to most people is they say, “I just feel better. Let me give this another week.” 

Denver: One more week. I’ll make it a month.

Neal: And then it becomes something…it’s like if you’re a smoker. If you broke away from it for three weeks, you think, “I like this. I like this. Let me just keep going.” 

Now, people will goof up sometimes. If that happens to you, this is not a moral failing. Just dust yourself off; get back on the wagon, and it’s going to change your life. 

Denver: People have always said that if you mess up  one time, it’s a mistake, but if you do it two days in a row, it’s the beginning of a new habit. So you’ve really got to get right back on that horse.

Neal: Yes. But to tell you the truth, I agree completely. I think the most important thing though of all is we have to recognize that it’s not just our health that matters. If you look at the next generation, every day, a 12-year-old kid has chicken nuggets for lunch, string -cheese at the 7-11 on the way home. At night, it’s a pepperoni pizza. Half the commercials on TV are snack foods, and the other half are medicines that the kids think that’s just normal life. That is not normal life. Let’s eat in a more healthful way. Let’s get our bodies back in balance, and more than anything else, let’s help the next generation to be healthier than we have had the opportunity to. 

Denver: Well, there certainly is a public policy dimension to all of this, and maybe we’ll get to that our next time.

Dr. Neal Barnard, the author of Your Body in Balance: A New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health, thanks so much for being here this evening. Now, in addition to picking up the book, which is really the objective, I know, are there any other places online where people can learn more about your work and hormonal health?

Neal: Well, thank you for asking. The Physicians Committee’s website is It stands for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. And as part of it, there is a free app that you can get on your smartphone. It’s called the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart – recipes, menus, cooking videos. You’ll feel really cool with this app. 

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks Neal. It was a great pleasure to have you on the show. 

Neal: You, too. Thank you. 

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at 


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