Dr. Barnard's Blog

The Physicians Committee

Meat and Dairy Subsidies Make America Sick

July 22, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Government food subsidies—including meat and dairy products—are damaging the health of Americans, according to a study just published in JAMA Internal Medicine. It’s a problem we’re working to fix.

The first study, conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University, found that “current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing production of food commodities, a large portion of which are converted into high-fat meat and dairy products” and other items that increase the risk for cardiometabolic risks in American adults.

Researchers followed 10,308 American participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and measured the percentage of calories consumed from subsidized foods, body weight, blood pressure, inflammation measures, and cholesterol levels. Those who consumed the most subsidized foods, including high-fat meat and dairy products, were 41 percent and 21 percent more likely to be overweight and have elevated blood sugars, respectively.

It gets worse. Subsidized meat and dairy products can also lead to early death. In a related study, Harvard researchers found that eating more saturated fat—found primarily in animal products—was associated with increased risk of death.

Children’s health also pays a toll when meat and dairy producers profit. Last summer, our report “Who’s Making Money from Overweight Kids?” took a look at subsidies in school lunches. 

We found that in 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $500 million to 62 meat and dairy producers for beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, dairy, eggs, and lamb that ended up in school meals.

So where are the subsidies for disease-fighting fruits and vegetable? They receive just a fraction of what goes to meat and dairy products. Maybe that’s why new USDA findings show that Americans are eating fewer fruits and vegetables than they were a decade ago.  

Congress is already starting discussions on the 2018 Farm Bill—which oversees subsidies—and we’ll be working to encourage the federal government to alter agricultural policies to address America’s diet-related chronic disease epidemics. 

 

Protect Against Prostate Cancer: Ditch Dairy and Other Tips

July 20, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Metastatic prostate cancer cases are on the rise—up 72 percent in men ages 55 to 69 years old in the last decade—according to a new study in the journal Prostate Cancer and Prostatic Diseases. Dietary changes can help reduce prostate cancer risk and prevent its progression if diagnosed. Here are a few simple steps men should take today:

1. Ditch dairy.

A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that total dairy product, total milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and dietary calcium intakes were associated with an increased risk for prostate cancer. According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, men who consumed three or more servings of dairy products a day had a 141 percent higher risk for death due to prostate cancer compared to those who consumed less than one serving. Both high- and low-fat dairy products were associated with increased mortality.

Learn more at MilkCausesProstateCancer.org.

2. Eliminate eggs.

A Harvard study found that men diagnosed with prostate cancer who ate the most eggs had a two-fold increased risk of cancer progression.

3. Protect with plants.

A plant-based diet can protect against prostate cancer. In a recent study, researchers compared several dietary patterns and cancer incidence rates for 26,346 participants. Men who followed a vegan diet experienced a 35 percent lower prostate cancer risk than those following a nonvegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, or semi-vegetarian diet.

Lycopene, part of the carotenoid family, is a pigment that helps give red fruits and vegetables their color and it's also one of the free radical-fighting antioxidants. In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, the authors concluded that consumption of tomato-based foods may be linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer.

Sense of Urgency

July 20, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Every Physicians Committee doctor member and supporter is an agent of change. To read the stories of a few of them, check out the new summer issue of Good Medicine magazine. Here’s my editorial from the issue:

When we founded the Physicians Committee 31 years ago, the name “committee” fit pretty well. We were a small group of doctors determined to put prevention first, promote healthful diets, and tackle ethical issues in research.

We’ve grown a lot since then. Today, many thousands of doctors, along with other health care providers, scientists, and concerned citizens work with our 80-person staff to advance our cause.

And we’ve succeeded. The Physicians Committee eliminated the “meat group” in federal nutrition policy, put vegetarian diets front and center in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carried out human clinical research studies that have revolutionized the treatment of diabetes and other health problems, and provided the scientific data that has helped foster major reductions in meat and dairy consumption in the United States. We brought about the end of the use of animals in medical school curricula throughout the United States and Canada, were instrumental in ending the use of chimpanzees in medical research, revolutionized chemical testing legislation to favor nonanimal methods, and stopped many cruel animal experiments.

What drives these doctors and the work they do?

A sense of urgency. Americans now eat 1 million animals every hour, leading to epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, not to mention the massive abuse of animals and environmental destruction. The United States research enterprise continues to favor pharmaceutical development, at the expense of critically needed studies addressing the nutritional causes of disease. And although many people are changing their diets and revolutionizing their health, many others still have no access to the information they need. 

Each of these problems is urgent. And our ever-growing team is committed to tackling them.

Q-and-A: Author of WHO Processed Meats and Cancer Report

June 22, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Mariana C. Stern, Ph.D., a co-author of the World Health Organization report that declared processed meats carcinogenic to humans, says that physicians should recommend that patients avoid processed meats. In this excerpt from the upcoming summer issue of Good Medicine magazine, Dr. Stern discusses the link between meat and cancer, the impact of the WHO report, and her single most important piece of nutrition advice.

Dr. Stern will discuss her research on nutrition and cancer at the Physicians Committee’s International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on July 29-30, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Register to attend at ICNM16.org.

How does meat increase cancer risk?

Several mechanisms have been postulated. One is the presence of heme iron in red meats. This is a component of the protein that transports oxygen in blood. Meats are rich in this protein, as muscle requires a lot of oxygen. In excess, heme iron is known to cause damage in tissues, and can also help in the formation of carcinogens called nitrosamines in the intestines. These nitrosamines can also form in meats that have been treated with nitrates, like bacon or cold cuts, or inside our intestines when diets are high in red meat and there are sources of nitrates. Another mechanism is the formation of a group of carcinogens called heterocyclic aromatic amines that naturally form in red meat when it is cooked at high temperature. Components in the meat can react at high temperature to form these powerful carcinogens.

It is still not clear which of these mechanisms is the most important. There is a chance that different combinations of these may be at play in different people.

Do particular meats increase the risk for particular cancers?

To date, the evidence is strongest for an association between red meats (muscle meat from cows, lambs, pigs, sheep, and horses) and colorectal, pancreas, and prostate cancer. Whereas there is evidence that red meat may also increase risk of other cancers, the evidence is still inconclusive. The evidence is very strong for processed meats and colorectal cancer, and also strong for stomach cancer. Again, there is evidence that processed meats may also increase risk of other cancers, such as breast cancer, but the evidence is still inconclusive.

You were a co-author of the World Health Organization monograph that led to the classification of processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen. How do you think the report has influenced processed meat consumption?

There is definitively more awareness. I find that many people who had never heard that processed meats might be bad for us now know this and perhaps are starting to make different choices, or at least know that they should not eat processed meats every day. Unfortunately, this knowledge does not cut across our society, as not all people keep up with the scientific knowledge that trickles to the media. In the scientific community, there is more interest on this topic, more validation, which hopefully may translate into more support for new funded studies to understand the role of processed meats on cancer further.

Do you think policy changes should be enacted to protect people from processed meats?

Yes, I think the public should be informed of the known risks of consuming processed meats, so that they can make informed choices. Processed meats are still an affordable staple in many people’s diets, the aisles in supermarkets offering processed foods are very big, and particularly worrisome is the role of processed meats in children’s diets. They make convenient and affordable lunch and snack options. Parents should know the risks associated with processed meats and learn to make alternative choices.

Should physicians recommend that their patients avoid processed meats?

I think so. Diets high in red meat may contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Processed meats are now established sources of carcinogens. There are many benefits associated with increasing fruits and vegetables and reducing red meats—and clear benefits from reducing processed meats, given their salt, fat, and carcinogen content. A healthy diet should be part of the conversation between a physician and a patient.

What foods help reduce cancer risk?

Fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts. We know diets high in fiber are protective against the development of several cancers, and other diseases as well. We also know of many vitamins and other chemicals present in fruits, vegetables, and nuts that have many beneficial effects reducing inflammation, preventing damage to our DNA, and overall reducing cancer risk.

What is the single most important piece of nutrition advice you wish everyone knew?

Do not trust all information posted online about nutrition and health. Go to the most reputable sources. For knowledge about nutrition and cancer this would include the Physicians Committee, the American Cancer Society, the American Institute of Cancer Research, and the World Health Organization, among others. Epidemiological or experimental studies on diet and cancer are published every day. The press likes them, and they make for great stories, so they appear in the media very quickly. Not all meet the most rigorous scientific standards. And even if they do, the variability across the population is so large that epidemiologists never rely on one single study to make definitive conclusions. We rely on systematic reviews conducted by experts using rigorous methods.

There is the misconception that “everything gives cancer, so why worry about one dietary item or another, they will all cause cancer anyway!” This is not true. To date, there are only a handful of dietary items that have been consistently and solidly linked to cancer. Red meat is one of them, so we should take this seriously. Meat does not need to be the main staple of our diet, and it is not the only source of protein for kids and adults to be strong and healthy. We should give a more prominent role to plant-based foods, which when part of a balanced diet can provide all the essential nutrients we need to grow and stay healthy and strong, and also provide us with many disease- and cancer-fighting nutrients.

In the Western diet, we have grown used to the idea of having meat as the main food item on our plate and everything else on the side. Many people still think that without meat they cannot be healthy. We need to reverse our thinking and make plant-based foods the center of our plate. 

Where do you get your protein?

June 17, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

“Where do you get your protein?” It’s probably the No. 1 question vegetarians and vegans get about their diets.

But why? In the United States today, protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent. In fact, most Americans are actually getting twice the protein their bodies really need.

The protein myth is one of many topics that Marta Zaraska tackles in her book Meathooked—an exploration of our cultural addiction to meat. As Ms. Zaraska explains, it’s extremely hard to succumb to [protein deficiency] in the West unless you are truly starving, an AIDS patient, or a drug addict.” Most of us, she explains, only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day—that’s about 50 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds—which most people achieve easily.

But you wouldn’t know that if you get your nutrition advice from the headlines—which constantly push high-protein diets. In spite of the fact that we now eat more meat than ever—about 125 pounds per person every year—and collectively consume more than one million chickens per hour, we still strive for more protein. The more, the better.

But when it comes to protein, evidence shows that more isn’t actually better. A long-term study published in 2014 found that diets rich in animal protein are linked to a fivefold increase in risk of death from diabetes and a fourfold increase in risk of death from cancer—risk factors that are comparable to smoking. And for the first time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans now urge certain groups of Americans—namely men and teenage boys—to reduce their overall consumption of high-protein foods, like meat and eggs, to improve their health.

So what makes high-protein diets so dangerous? Part of the reason may be that high-protein foods, like meat, dairy products, and eggs, are also rich in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

A healthful plant-based diet, on the other hand, easily provides all the protein our bodies need, without any of the health risks. All foods, including fruits and vegetables, contain protein, while certain plant-based foods, like whole grains, beans, nuts, lentils, tofu, and quinoa pack an extra protein punch.

So worrying about protein isn’t necessary—a recent study even found that 90 percent of the world’s countries and territories exceed protein requirements.

The real deficiencies in the standard American diet? Nine in 10 Americans don’t eat enough vegetables, while a whopping 97 percent of us fail to meet daily recommendations for fiber—a nutrient that can help control weight, lower cholesterol, and even fight off cancer. A recent study published in The Journal of Gerontology even found that fiber may be the key to successful aging.

Considering the current epidemics of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, we should stop counting grams of protein and start asking: Where do you get your fiber?

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