Dr. Barnard's Blog

The Physicians Committee

Does Obama’s “Cancer Moonshot” Miss the Mark?

January 28, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama launched a “moonshot” to cure cancer. Today, he took the first step by creating a cancer task force.

A serious, concerted effort to conquer cancer is a noble goal. But while the initial plan references breakthrough research, new therapies, and cutting-edge technology, it misses something important: We already have knowledge at our fingertips that can often halt it before it even begins.


It’s not just wishful thinking. Research shows that applying knowledge we already have about diet and lifestyle could prevent about half of all cancer cases. A healthful plant-based diet filled with fiber has shown to be protective against certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer.

We know without a doubt that certain foods are linked to cancer. Late last year, the World Health Organization listed processed meat products alongside tobacco on a list of known human carcinogens. Published in Lancet Oncology, the WHO report compiled data from 800 studies and found strong evidence of the cancer-causing properties of processed meats. One meta-analysis in the study shows that just one daily serving of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Yet, in spite of this knowledge, we still dish out pepperoni pizza to our children on the school lunch line, we serve hot dogs to patients recovering in their hospital beds, and we think nothing of it when our president poses with a cheeseburger in a photo op.

How can this be? A generation ago, we were at a similar crossroads with another deadly product deeply entrenched in our culture: cigarettes. When I was an intern at the George Washington University Hospital in the early 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon to see doctors step away from the operating room for a quick smoke break, while patients lit up cigarettes right from their hospital beds. Even high school students could stop by smoke lounges located conveniently in their schools.

It’s hard to imagine three decades later, now that smoking bans are in place at hospitals and schools, on airplanes, and in public buildings. Once we realized the deadly toll of smoking, we launched a war on tobacco where education and prevention were key. Today, there is no question that smoking causes cancer. As a result, fewer people are smoking, and lung cancer rates are falling.

Taking a similar approach with unhealthy foods would go a long in solving the problem of diet-related disease.

That’s not to say that cancer research isn’t important. Not all cancer cases can be prevented. But while we shoot for the moon and wait for the promise of a cure, why not minimize our risk by applying knowledge we already have?


Countering Chocolate Milk Concussion Claims

January 20, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Chocolate milk doesn’t help concussions. But the dairy industry wants you to think it does. So it funded a study on high school football players that’s now being called into question. The university that conducted the study is even saying that people should not rely on results described in its recent new release. Dairy deception like this is nothing new. We’ve been debunking it for more than 20 years.


Nobody needs milk, including the teen boys in this study. All milk products—including Fifth Quarter Fresh, the “high-protein chocolate milk” used in the study—contain two things the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say teen boys already have too much of in their diet: protein and added sugar. Fifth Quarter Fresh has 20 grams of protein and 42 grams of sugar.

There are many other health reasons for everyone to ditch dairy, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers, bone fractures, and death.

The dairy industry’s health claims are not only deceitful, they are dangerous. It’s why we’ve spent decades working to expose milk myths.


Digesting the 2015 Dietary Guidelines

January 7, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Americans have endured a dietary dilemma that began with the February 2015 release of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. What foods promote good health? Which cause disease? We’ve spent the last year trying to clear up the confusion. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that were released this morning also attempt to answer those questions. Here’s my breakdown of what the Guidelines get right and wrong.

Plant-Based Diets

The most heartening news is that the Guidelines continue to push the power of plant-based diets to fight disease. The Guidelines recommended Healthy Vegetarian Pattern—including an entirely vegan plan—and note that this pattern is higher in calcium and fiber than the Healthy U.S.-Style Pattern, which includes animal products.


Cholesterol and Saturated Fat

More good news: The Guidelines strengthen cholesterol warnings by urging Americans to “eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible” to help reduce risk of heart disease, obesity, and other conditions. The decision follows our yearlong campaign—including petitions, oral testimony, billboards, and threat of legal action—to stop industry’s efforts to remove cholesterol warnings from the Guidelines.

But in urging Americans to cut the cholesterol, the Guidelines should not have recommended cholesterol-containing seafood, lean meats and poultry, and eggs as part of a healthy eating pattern. All animal products contain cholesterol. In their defense, the Guidelines do limit meat, poultry, and eggs—all combined—to just 4 ounces per day, or even less for some groups. So it’s a step forward.

The Guidelines also recommend limiting saturated fat, but again cause confusion by recommending meat and dairy products—the leading sources of saturated fat in the American diet.

Red and Processed Meats

Again, there’s good and bad news. First the good: The Guidelines urge “teen boys and adult men … to reduce overall intake of protein foods … by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry, and eggs.” And the “protein foods” group includes healthful foods—legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products.

But the bad news—and it’s really bad—is that the Guidelines actually encourage everyone else to eat processed meats: “For those who eat animal products, the recommendation for the protein foods … can be met by consuming a variety of lean meats, lean poultry, and eggs. Choices within these eating patterns may include processed meats and processed poultry…”

This recommendation blatantly ignores the dire health consequences of consuming processed meats, carcinogens that the World Health Organization recently placed in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos. A recent study in Lancet Oncology observed associations between red and processed meat products and colon, stomach, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

Dairy Products

The Guidelines should have also ditched the dairy recommendations to help Americans cut down on sugar and reduce the risk for hip fractures, prostate cancer, and early death. However, the Guidelines did say that soy milk counts as a dairy product, so that is a step forward.

What’s Next?

We were able to keep industry from influencing cholesterol recommendations, but industry fingerprints are all over the Guidelines, from what’s included (recommendations for lean meat) to what’s missing (sustainability). In 2016, we’re continuing our legal efforts to find out how the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee could be so easily swayed by industry.


Fifteen Times Plant-Based Diets Stole the Spotlight in 2015

December 29, 2015   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

Plant-based diets stole the spotlight in 2015. Top advisors to the U.S. government voted for a vegan diet, a veggie burger was voted “best burger in the world,” and prominent figures from Miley Cyrus and Adele to the president of the American College of Cardiology sang the praises of plant-based diets.  

Here are 15 times that veggies took center stage in 2015:


1) When the World Health Organization Declared that Red and Processed Meats Cause Cancer: A large-scale international review published in Lancet Oncology in October concluded that red and processed meats are linked to cancer.

2) When a Veggie Burger Took the Top Prize: Where’s the beef? Not in the best burger in the world, according to GQ Magazine. In November, the magazine crowned New York City’s vegan Superiority Burger as best burger. The veggie burger’s win represents a shift in consumer preferences over the past year. More and more, people are pushing the beef off their plates. At the same time that McDonald’s closed more than 700 stores this year, demand has increased for plant-based fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, like New York’s By Chloe and the West Coast’s Veggie Grill. Even a former McDonald’s CEO has left beef burgers behind: In November, Don Thompson joined the board of a veggie burger start-up company.

3) When Scott Jurek Crossed the Finish Line: In July 2015, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek became the fastest person to ever race through the 2,189-mile-long Appalachian Trail. Fueled entirely by a plant-based diet, he broke the world record by running about 50 miles per day for 46 straight days.

4) When the President of the American College of Cardiology Went Vegan: In July, Kim Williams, M.D., president of the American College of Cardiology, took the stage at the Physicians Committee’s International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine: Heart Disease to explain why he made the switch to a plant-based diet and why he recommends the same for his patients. The evidence that plant-based diets are best for heart health continued to mount in 2015. New studies show that vegetarian diets lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of heart attack, reverse angina, and lower the risk of heart disease in obese children.

5) When Beyoncé Was Crazy in Love with Veggies: Beyoncé’s music and fashion choices might create frequent media frenzies, but it was her menu making headlines earlier this year. In January, Queen Bey – inspired by how great she felt after her own 22-day vegan challenge – teamed up with Marco Borges and 22 Days Nutrition to launch a vegan meal delivery service. Also pushing plants into center stage in 2015? Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding, Jon Stewart, and Liam Hemsworth all raved about the many benefits of plant-based diets.

6) When Vegan Mayo Went Mainstream: In July, news broke that 7-Eleven made the switch to using vegan mayo in all prepared dishes.  It’s one of many reasons why following a plant-based diet became more convenient than ever in 2015. This year brought vegan meatballs to Ikea, veggie sliders to White Castle, and coconut milk to Starbucks. And due to popular demand, Ben & Jerry’s has been hard at work in 2015 creating a line of vegan ice cream, which will hit shelves next year.

7) When U.S. Government Advisors Voted for Plants: In February, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released a scientific report acknowledging the power of plant-based diets to fight obesity and reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and other common health problems. The report is being used to shape the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which not only guides individual choices, but drives food and nutrition policy.

8) When Veggies Rocked the Lunch Line: In September, MUSE School CA became the nation’s first plant-powered K-12 school after debuting an all-vegan menu packed with bean-based chilis and fresh vegetable salads. Along with Meatless Mondays and vegetarian options, school gardens and nutrition education programs have all risen in popularity at schools in the U.S. These trends might explain why a study published in March found that fruit and vegetable intake is on the rise in schools.

9) When Vegetarian Diets Proved Best for Weight Loss: In January, a major meta-analysis conducted by the Physicians Committee and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that adopting a vegetarian diet causes weight loss, even in the absence of exercise or calorie counting. Another study in July confirmed that compared to diets that contain meat, vegetarian and vegan diets are more effective for weight loss. Superstar singer Adele echoed the same sentiments, crediting her vegetarian diet for her recent weight loss.

10) When a Trucker Found the Road to Good Health: What’s the best way to fuel up? Bobby Andersen, a 45-year-old Mississippi truck driver, made the case for a plant-based diet this July, when his story became national news. After adopting a vegan diet, Andersen lost 65 pounds and dropped all of his medications – all while spending six days a week on the road.

11) When 340,000 Cancer Cases Could Have Been Prevented: The American Institute for Cancer Research states that a healthy diet and other lifestyle changes can prevent an estimated 340,000 cancer cases per year, and new research this year showed that plant-based diets may be protective against certain types of cancer. Vegan diets may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, be best for breast cancer survival, and protect against colorectal cancer.

12) When Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminated the Protein Myth: In December, Arnold Schwarzenegger finally put the protein myth to rest, when he explained that vegetarian diets contain all the protein that bodybuilders and other athletes need. Throughout 2015, many athletes proved his point: Football player David Carter made headlines as the NFL’s “300-pound vegan,” Serena Williams continued to wow crowds with her tennis skills and became The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for the fourth time, and NBA star Ben Gordon felt “lighter and faster” after making the switch to a plant-based diet. Sports fans weren’t left out either in 2015. U.S. ballparks and stadiums are championing vegan options, while the “world’s first vegan football team” became the first UK football club to serve an entirely plant-based menu.

13) When the Cleveland Clinic Said Bye Bye to Big Macs: In September, the nation’s top hospital for heart health announced the termination of its contract with McDonald’s, becoming one of at least four hospitals to cut ties with the fast-food chain this year. It’s a sign that hospitals are prioritizing nutrition for patient health. In Connecticut, New Milford Hospital spent 2015 serving fresh salads filled with vegetables grown on the hospital’s rooftop, while Garth Davis, M.D., wrote out prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables at the “Farmacy” stand in the lobby at Houston’s Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center.

14) When a Journalist’s Vegan Meals Made Headlines: When prominent food journalist Mark Bittman wrote his last regular column for the New York Times in September, many wondered about his next step. In November, he announced that he would be joining a vegan meal-kit delivery startup. Bittman made the move because he wanted to help save lives, noting that “helping people eat less junk and processed food and fewer animal products will improve their health.”

15) When Vegan Options Took Off at U.S. Airports: Seventy-one percent of restaurants at the busiest U.S. airports now offer at least one healthful plant-based option, according to the 2015 Airport Food Review. From Vegetarian mango stir-fry at Baltimore/Washington International Airport to roasted beet salads with arugula at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, it’s easier than ever for travelers to find healthful options on the fly.


A New Model for Medical Care

December 28, 2015   Dr. Neal Barnard   ,

For all the patients who have complained that their doctors know nothing about nutrition, all the medical students who have had nowhere to see plant-based diets in action, all the people following vegan diets who could not find a doctor who understands their choices, all the enlightened but overly busy doctors who have had no time to counsel patients on food choices, and, most of all, all the people suffering with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and weight problems who are taking one prescription after another and have never been able to tackle the cause of their problems, we have opened the Barnard Medical Center. You can download the special Barnard Medical Center excerpt from the winter 2016 issue of Good Medicine to find out more.


It is a place where patients get the care they need, where they and their families are supported for diet and lifestyle changes, where doctors, nurses, and dietitians can thrive, and where medical students can learn.

Barnard Medical had its genesis back in 2003, when the National Institutes of Health funded the Physicians Committee's research on plant-based diets for type 2 diabetes. As our approach became well-known, people from far and wide asked how they could visit our doctors, and doctors asked how they could learn about the methods we had developed. Although we have produced books, videos, television programs, and Web materials, and have held many conferences to bring our approach to a wide audience, it became clear that a medical center was very much needed.

When nutrition is a core issue—in diabetes, for example—we give special emphasis to the power of nutrition through individual and group sessions and ongoing support, and we prescribe medications only to the extent you really need them.

When nutrition is not the issue—for coughs, urinary infections, twisted ankles, and other problems that come into a busy primary care clinic—we provide the medicines, bandages, or whatever else patients may need. But every patient is also invited to schedule a diet makeover and get help with quitting smoking or breaking other habits. After all, a twisted ankle is not likely to be fatal, but bad eating habits that go overlooked year after year may well be. We’ll help change them.

Barnard Medical is also a teaching facility for medical students from the George Washington University, and a place where research studies can test new nutrition interventions. Barnard Medical is not-for-profit. We accept the major insurance plans and have a sliding scale for low-income patients. We gladly accept donations and memorial gifts of support.

I hope you have a chance to meet our team, and we look forward to the day when every doctor and every patient embraces the power of foods for health and has the knowledge and tools to put it to work.




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