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The Physicians Committee

Five Takeaways on the White House and Big Food

October 7, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   industry influence, government and food policy


“Why did the Obamas fail to take on corporate agriculture?” Michael Pollan asks in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a complicated issue. Here’s a simple answer: Taking on Big Food is a bigger challenge than any presidential administration can tackle alone. What hindered the White House from making certain food policy changes that could have helped Americans fight obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases caused by meat and dairy products?

Below, I’ve paraphrased some of the problems Pollan identified and my suggestions for possible solutions. He also identified a positive trend: Where the president couldn’t prevail against Big Food, the public is seeing success.

  1. Industries including the beef slaughter and chicken processing industry are "dominated by a small number of gigantic firms ... represented in Washington by one or more powerful lobbying organizations," he says. Big Meat spent "$9 million on lobbying in 2010—not including political contributions to members of the agriculture committees in Congress."

    My Take: Well-heeled lobbyists represent industries that promote disease-causing animal products. Not so long ago, the tobacco lobby was equally formidable. But the science showing the dangers of tobacco was more powerful than the tobacco lobby. Public health officials spoke up, and the government cracked down on the tobacco industry. The science showing the dangers of meat is equally powerful. It’s time for the U.S. government to stand up against meat, egg, and dairy industry lobbyists.

  2.  "Big Ag in turn supplies the feed grain for Big Meat ... A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet."

    My Take: A broken subsidy system supplies disease-fighting grains to Big Meat for animal feed instead of for human consumption. Meat and dairy subsidies make America sick. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine 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.

  3. "Big Food’s biggest victory ... was its success in derailing voluntary guidelines for marketing food to kids."

    My Take: Malevolent junk food marketers encourage the consumption of meaty, cheesy fast-food and other junk food.  We don’t need voluntary guidelines. We need regulations. Big Food is getting sneaky. McDonald’s recently introduced Olympic-inspired trackers (that were eventually recalled for causing rashes) to “push back at critics who've painted the business as pushing junk food to kids.” But adding a fitness tracker to an order of burgers and fries doesn’t change the fact that McDonald’s is still pushing burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries—all junk food—to kids.

  4. "The food industry even managed to undermine the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act."

    My Take: Big food pushed unhealthy school lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough to get chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers out of school lunches. Our report “Who’s Making Money from Overweight Kids?” found that meat and dairy industry makes money when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and School Nutrition Association promote junk foods—such as nachos, chicken wings, and pepperoni pizza—in school lunches.

  5. "While Big Food can continue to forestall change in Washington, that strategy simply will not succeed in the marketplace."

    My Take: Consumers are demanding changes that Big Food can’t ignore. As I wrote in The Hill this week: It’s clear that public health organizations, big business, and the tech industry are all working toward helping consumers get healthy by shifting from meaty meals to plant-based diets.


Your No. 1 Health Threat (No, It's Not E-Cigarettes)

September 23, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   other


By Rose Saltalamacchia and Neal Barnard, M.D.

With the seemingly constant buzz surrounding what to eat, from the latest "super" foods, to the decades-old dispute of carbs versus fat, it's easy to be confused about what's healthy and what is not. But the jury is in, and the best advice can be summed up in four simple words: Break the meat habit.

Yes, we grew up with it, and, yes, it is front and center on just about every restaurant menu. But breaking the meat habit gives you more power than any other diet shift you could think of. From the first rumblings in cardiovascular research to the modern day studies that link animal fats to cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, evidence has steadily mounted showing that meat is a problem.

And a recent comprehensive study carried out by researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital makes things abundantly clear. The study was huge--131,342 participants--and the research methods were meticulous. The study analyzed health outcomes based on protein sources, and the results were striking: Participants who consumed more plant-based protein not only live longer, but are healthier longer than their meat-eating counterparts.

Red meat has long been the black sheep of the food world because of its links to heart disease. But new research shows that the problems don't end there: Red meat has also been linked to kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. And the new Harvard study showed that all forms of animal protein--including poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs--are part of the problem, clearly increasing the risk of disease and mortality.

For parents, a particular red flag comes from the World Health Organization's recent determination of processed meat as a carcinogen. Processed meat means everyday sausages, bacon, and hot dogs, as well as deli meats, certain kinds of rotisserie chicken, and packaged lunch meats. That means even buying the "all natural" turkey sausage isn't doing your body any good, and that goes double for children.

A recent book, aptly titled Meathooked, makes the case not only that meat poses health problems but also that we seem culturally stuck on meat--turning a blind eye to the problems it causes. Author Marta Zaraska delves into the industry-funded studies that downplay meat's risks. She shows that it takes a watchful eye and wary consumer to be able to seek out unbiased research.

Marion Nestle, Ph.D, M.P.H., of New York University, has been keeping tabs on this phenomenon, finding that industry's influence is ever present, from targeted online campaigns to increase meat consumption among millennials, to shaping government organizations. Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith introduced an amendment that would block the military from adopting Meatless Mondays. Coincidentally, Rep. Smith hails from Nebraska's 3rd District, which happens to rank as the country's top meat-producing congressional district.

By moving meat out of the center of our plates or, better still, breaking the meat habit altogether, Americans will be able to avert the next health disaster. It's a simple move with an enormous impact, and it's the first step in building a healthier, more sustainable future.


Conquering Diabetes with Carbohydrates

September 12, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   diabetes, type 2 diabetes


Carbohydrates do not cause type 2 diabetes. In fact, a new study found just the opposite: A diet rich in carbohydrates can actually fight diabetes. A wide range of other studies looking at plant-based diets and diabetes have consistently shown similar results.
But you would not know that if you read the New York Times this weekend. On Sunday, the paper published an opinion piece urging Americans to ditch not only sugars, but wheat, rice, corn, potatoes—even fruit—to fight diabetes and obesity. The article also recommended replacing these foods with meat, eggs, and butter.
Advice like this is dangerous. Another recent study of more than 200,000 participants found that consuming large amounts of animal protein increased diabetes risk by 13 percent. But by simply replacing 5 percent of animal protein with vegetable protein—including carbohydrates like potatoes and grains—participants decreased diabetes risk by 23 percent. 
Epidemiological studies tell a similar story. Traditionally, minimally processed and unprocessed carbohydrates, including rice and starchy vegetables, were the main staples in countries like Japan and China—and type 2 diabetes was rare. But as time went on, Western diets filled with meat, cheese, and highly processed foods replaced these traditional carbohydrate-based diets, and diabetes rates soared. 
So how does it work? Insulin’s job in our bodies is to move glucose, or sugar, from our blood into our cells. But when there’s too much fat in our diets, fat builds up in our cells. Evidence shows that this cellular fat can actually interfere with insulin’s ability to move glucose into our cells, leading to type 2 diabetes. For a more detailed explanation, check out this video:  
At the Physicians Committee, we have been putting this idea into practice for more than a decade. Participants in our clinical studies and nutrition education classes eat as many whole, unprocessed or minimally processed carbohydrates as they want—everything from fruit and sweet potatoes to beans and whole wheat pasta—and they soon see improvements in their blood sugar control. 
In 2006, we partnered with the George Washington University and the University of Toronto to put these ideas to the test in a clinical setting by pitting a low-fat, plant-based diet against the standard diabetes diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. The results were remarkable: Participants in the vegan group lowered hemoglobin A1C by 1.2 points, which was three times greater than the ADA group.
These participants also experienced weight loss, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and improved energy. All the side effects were positive. On the other hand, those who follow low-carbohydrate diets are at increased risk over the long term for weight gain, heart disease, and even premature death.    
For more information about a plant-based diet and diabetes, please visit PCRM.org/Diabetes.

How to Pack Healthy School Lunches for Kids

August 26, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   school lunch


Want to give your kids the best start when they head back to school this year? Send them off to class with healthy, colorful plant-based lunches!

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients that will help children stay energized throughout the school day. As an added bonus, eating these foods will help them build healthy habits for life. Studies show that vegetarian diets are linked to a lower risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

For the past few years, students at one New York elementary school have already been enjoying healthy plant-based lunches. The Active Learning Elementary School (TALES) in Queens is one of the first public schools in the nation to adopt an all-vegetarian menu. Gone are the days of pink slime and mystery meat; TALES students happily eat meals like Teriyaki Crunchy Tofu and Super Hero Spinach Wraps. Since making the switch to an all vegetarian menu, the school’s principal, Robert Groff, reports that average BMI has decreased, while test scores and energy levels have gone up. The best part? Principal Groff reports that students are asking their parents for brown rice and broccoli outside of the lunchroom!

Want to give it a try in your kids’ lunches? Watch Physicians Committee dietitian Karen Smith, R.D., and her daughters, Lauren and Carli, share their favorite kid-tested and dietitian-approved plant-based lunches to pack for school!

Get the recipes from the video here:

Vegetable Chili


Rice and Beans

Rainbow Sandwich: whole wheat bread, hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, shredded carrots, shredded purple cabbage, avocado slices


McDonald’s: Quit Clowning Around with Kids’ Health

August 18, 2016   Dr. Neal Barnard   children's health


Earlier today, McDonald’s announced that it would be pulling this month’s Happy Meal giveaway—a fitness tracker—after reports that the devices have caused rashes on children’s arms. But rashes or not, McDonald’s ploy to associate Happy Meals with health was dangerous from the start.

According to USA Today, McDonald’s introduced the Olympic-inspired trackers to “push back at critics who've painted the business as pushing junk food to kids.” But adding a fitness tracker to an order of burgers and fries doesn’t change the fact that McDonald’s is still pushing burgers, chicken nuggets, and fries—all junk food—to kids.

Late last week, the American Heart Association released a statement in the journal Circulation on the state of children’s cardiovascular health in the United States. The report is sobering: According to the AHA, many American children already fail to meet even basic standards for good heart health.

The authors found that about a third of surveyed children have elevated cholesterol levels, while an estimated 10 to 27 percent of U.S. children are obese, depending on the age group.

It’s not a surprise, considering the authors also found that an overwhelming majority of the children—91 percent—eat unhealthy diets. In fact, the average U.S. child eats only about a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables per day, falling woefully short of the recommended five daily servings. At the same time, most children consume an excess of artery-clogging saturated fat, while 9 in 10 eat too much sodium. So the last thing kids need to associate with health is cheeseburgers, fried chicken nuggets, and salty fries.

To curb the childhood obesity epidemic, we have to look further than just physical fitness. While exercise is important and has its benefits, studies continue to show that food choices play a bigger role in maintaining a healthy weight. One study in preschoolers found that physical activity levels do not determine children’s body weight as much as other factors, including diet.

Considering that a cheeseburger Happy Meal has 570 calories, 20 grams of total fat, 8.5 grams of saturated fat, 55 milligrams of cholesterol, and 915 milligrams of sodium, it’s not fitness trackers that McDonald’s needs to serve up with its Happy Meals, but angiograms.


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