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The Physicians Committee

JLo Goes Vegan: An Inside Look Into the Surging Popularity of Plant-Based Diets

May 13, 2014   Susan Levin M.S. R.D. C.S.S.D.   vegan

 
 

Guest Blog by Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. Jennifer Lopez is the latest celebrity to adopt a healthful vegan diet. We’re rooting for JLo and look forward to seeing her plant-powered performances on her next tour! Vegan diets conjennifer-lopez-vegantinue to surge in popularity and for good reason. Studies show people who adopt a plant-heavy diet are at reduced risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. Other benefits include an increased lifespan and improvements in skin complexion, mood, and memory. Hollywood’s A-list health champions are living proof: Anne Hathaway, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Ellen DeGeneres, and Carrie Underwood are some of Tinseltown’s biggest stars who continue to tout the health benefits of a colorful plant-based diet. Need a case study? Actress Michelle Pfeiffer lowered her cholesterol by 83 points, former president Bill Clinton lost 30 pounds and revamped his heart health, and actor Samuel L. Jackson lost 40 pounds after switching to a low-fat vegan diet. Al Gore may be the next success story: The former vice president, who announced his vegan diet earlier this year, for environmental and health reasons, has lost 50 pounds. These aren’t the only New Yorker residents who are seeing results: An elementary school in the Bronx recently adopted a plant-based menu, and within a year the students’ overall attendance improved, BMIs dropped, and test scores soared to an all-time high. The good news? The students enjoy the food: Some of the most popular menu items are spiced chickpeas, salad bars with broccoli trees, and fresh mango slices. GEICO took a similar approach with employees in 2008 and offered plant-based options in workplace cafeterias, provided cooking demos for staff, and then made reference to a vegan diet in their famous “Happier than an Antelope” TV ad in 2012. This growing phenomenon could explain why a recent Technomic survey finds kale-based options have increased 400 percent on restaurant menus over the past five years. Vegan options and quick grabs, which range from a simple black bean burrito bowl at Chipotle to a macrobiotic bowl with sea vegetables at Café Gratitude, dominate menus nationwide. As our palates revert back to the healthy basics and as plant-based options continue to expand throughout K-12 schools, hospitals, workplace cafeterias, restaurants, grocery stores, U.S. airports, and on Hollywood screens, I hope to see the health of our next generation rapidly improve. Want to test-drive a vegan diet or create your own success story? Visit 21DayKickstart.org.

Get Omega-3s with Ease

May 12, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   other

 
 

While many people believe that eating fish is necessary to get omega-3 fatty acids and maintain heart and brain health, there is absolutely nothing healthful about fish.

Recent research has even debunked the age-old myth that Eskimos, who ate diets heavy in fish, had a lower risk for heart disease. Fortunately, there are plenty of plant-based sources of omega-3s.

So what do we know about omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary nutrients that cannot be synthesized by the body, so we need to get them from our food. Since omega-3s do help with cell function, a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can result in negative health consequences such as liver and kidney abnormalities, decreased immune function, or dry skin.

While some studies show that omega-3s might help with aging or brain health, omega-3s from fish or other animal products come with some unwanted side effects.

Fish contains toxic contaminants, and all animal products contain cholesterol and saturated fat—and have no fiber, an essential nutrient for digestion, cancer prevention, and weight loss. In my piece for the Huffington Post, I summarize some of the research debunking the health halo of fish oil supplements.  Fast food companies have also jumped in on the popularity of fish during Lent, but don’t take the bait—fish is not a health food.

Even if omega-3s are not the fountain of youth, plant sources of omega-3s are full of fiber and rich in other nutrients. Edamame and walnuts contain omega-3s and also contain protein. Winter squash is packed with omega-3s and is also a great source of vitamin A and vitamin C.

Flaxseeds are easy to incorporate into baked goods, smoothies, and a whole variety of recipes. Research has even shown that women who follow vegan diets have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than those who consume diets rich in fish, meat, and dairy.

Friends or family have questions about omega-3s? Just share the infographic below!

omega-3-infographic  

Fed Up: Let’s Really Move Big Food Out of School Lunches

May 8, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   school lunch

 
 

Sugar Isn’t the Only Villain in our Surging Obesity Epidemic Katie Couric’s new documentary Fed Up is an eye-opening experience for most Americans. As the film shows, it’s nearly impossible to exercise your way out of eating pepperoni pizza, greasy fries, and a glass of low-fat chocolate milk—typical fare in K-12 school lunch rooms and family restaurant chains throughout the country. Exercise isn’t enough. We need to change what we’re eating.

healthy-school-lunches

But that’s where Fed Up misfires. It takes aim at sugar as if it is the sole devil in the lunchroom. But scapegoating sugar removes the much-deserved blame from the avalanche of meat and dairy piling up on the center of our plates – and school lunch trays. No amount of sugar reduction is going to help if people are still going for the meat and dairy.

A gram of sugar has only 4 calories. A gram of fat—from cheese, chicken, beef, or anywhere else has 9.

Compared with a century ago, Americans now eat 75 pounds more meat and 30 pounds more cheese per person, per year. In the last 30 years, consumption of cheese has tripled, fueling our childhood obesity epidemic.

Meat and cheese are the fatty staples of the standard American diet. The same diet has a hold on the National School Lunch Program: The sugar industry spent $9 million dollars lobbying in 2013, compared to the combined $17.5 million from the meat, dairy, and poultry industries.

Local beef burgers, pulled barbecue chicken, and turkey sausage need to come with parental permission slips. Countless research studies, including a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, show consumption of meat doubles diabetes risk. One in 3 children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in their life. One in 5 now graduates high school with a diploma and high cholesterol, an early marker for heart disease, which remains the number one killer worldwide.

While we work relentlessly to teach our students about strong work ethics, academic integrity, and kindness, I can’t say we offer the same when it comes to federal subsidies and nutrition education programs.

The good news is leading medical organizations, including Kaiser Permanente, and political figures, such as former president Bill Clinton, are revolutionizing the way we think about diet and health. Science continues to show that when we make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes the center of our plates and remove the meat and dairy, our waistlines dwindle, our health rapidly improves, and our need for medication plummets.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of nutrition experts, updated its 2009 position paper to say that well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. AND also finds people who follow vegetarian diets have a lower body mass index, lower risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of overall cancer.

Let’s really move plant-based foods to the center of our plates and see what happens.

Let’s Really Move School Lunch Ads
Op-Ed: Are Sugar and Sloth the Causes of Obesity?
Dr. Barnard's Studies on Dietary Trends in America

Breakfast of Chumps

April 23, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   fast food

 
 

Rather than working to further distinguish itself from the burger-slinging joints, Taco Bell has leapt into a seemingly industry-wide competition to turn breakfast into the worst meal of the day. Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu launched last month, though the company had been hyping up certain items for weeks—especially the Waffle Taco and the A.M. Crunchwrap.

Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts launched its portable-but-not-potable Eggs Benedict Sandwich. McDonald’s is considering extended breakfast hours and has been offering free coffee to lure customers. Taco Bell’s sausage A.M. Crunchwrap clocks in at 710 calories, 46 g of total fat, 14 g of saturated fat, and 135 mg of cholesterol. Breakfast should wake you up—not send you spinning into a nutritional nightmare!

taco-bell-breakfast

Then there’s the Waffle Taco, which Taco Bell considers its breakfast coup d'état. It’s a waffle folded around a sausage patty, egg, and cheese. The Waffle Taco looks like something that can stain your shirt and clog your arteries at the same time. With 370 calories, 23 g of total fat, 7 g of saturated fat, and 115 mg of cholesterol, the sausage Waffle Taco will certainly leave its mark on your waistline. PCRM has deemed Taco Bell the April recipient of its SICK (Social Irresponsibility towards Consumers and Kids) Award because of its marketing of these new high-cholesterol items. Presented to companies that heavily promote unhealthful foods, the SICK Award highlights the role marketing plays in America’s nutrition crisis. So what can you do on those busy mornings when you don’t have time to cook? Try making a big pot of oatmeal at the start of the week and dish it out in travel-sized containers. Or if you’re at Taco Bell, try the bean burrito. You can order it “Al Fresco” and reduce the fat by swapping the dairy for pico de gallo. Fast food doesn’t have to be bad food!

Vegetables Less Healthy than Fried Chicken? Don’t Fall for Clickbait Headlines.

April 11, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   other

 
 

Catchy headlines equal clicks, clicks equal readers, and readers equal money. It’s a formula the ever-changing news industry uses more frequently, as newsrooms get smaller and readers move quickly to the next trending topic.

benefits-of-eating-vegetables

So it’s no surprise that when PloS One published a study that offered the counterintuitive assertion that vegetarians are unhealthy, news outlets jumped in with “clickbait” headlines.

No, it wasn’t true. But it was a very clickable message. And in case you were drawn into that headline, here’s the truth behind it:

An Austrian research team wanted to see how different diets affected health. But because they did not have enough vegetarians to study, they lumped together people eating fish and people who ate meat only occasionally—and called them all “vegetarians.” And, indeed, this group looked less healthy overall than the dyed-in-the-wool carnivores.

However, the study looked at individuals during a snapshot in time and did not separate cause and effect. For example, individuals with health problems who adopted a fish/vegetarian diet in hopes of losing weight or curing heart disease were lumped in with others who had followed a fish/vegetarian diet for many years. The researchers themselves note this on page six:

“Potential limitations of our results are due to the fact that the survey was based on cross-sectional data. Therefore, no statements can be made whether the poorer health in vegetarians in our study is caused by their dietary habit or if they consume this form of diet due to their poorer health status.”

Large prospective studies and randomized clinical trials showed just the opposite: vegetarians have much better health, compared with non-vegetarians. They have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lower BMIs. The Physicians Committee’s recent multicenter GEICO study also showed better quality of life. Another recent study showed that eating seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day increases longevity.

So if someone at the water cooler starts telling you about how they’ll be swapping their smoothies for sausage patties, let them know that just because it’s trending, doesn’t mean it’s true.

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