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The Physicians Committee

A “Cheesy” Resolution: The One Big Healthy Decision to Make This Year

January 7, 2015   Dr. Neal Barnard   dairy


New Year’s resolutions always seem a little bit cheesy. By February, many people are trying to figure out how to cancel that gym membership or turn their treadmill into a coat rack. However, if you’re going to make one decision this year that sticks—resolve to remove cheese from your diet. Let’s be honest—some folks think they just can’t give up cheese. However, once you realize just how bad something is for you, it suddenly doesn’t seem so necessary! Every year millions of Americans resolve to quit smoking or to cut back on their drinking–and the health reward is huge. The same goes for cheese. Just as giving up smoking can significantly decrease the risk of lung cancer, giving up cheese can lower the risk of prostate and breast cancers. Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet. It’s also linked with the number one killer: heart disease. The high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat in cheese and other dairy products can increase atherosclerosis, leading to cardiovascular problems. Reducing cheese intake or replacing it with more healthful options—like hummus—can reduce your risk. Trying to slim down before summer? You should know that 70 percent of the calories in cheese come from fat. Once you take away the cheese, unhealthful foods suddenly become much better for you! One example is pizza. Considered one of the worst diet foods, pizza becomes thin bread topped with pureed tomatoes and veggies when you remove the greasy cheese. You can also lower the fat and calories in burritos, salads, sandwiches, or even soup by making this one simple change. Here are some cheese-free versions of popular recipes to get you started: South of the Border Pizza Pita Pizzas Eggplant Lasagna Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna “Cheese” Sauce And here’s a three-step program the Physicians Committee put together on Breaking the Cheese Addiction: Step One: The Reality Check Step Two: Making New Friends Step Three: Cleansing the Palate Resolve to make 2015 your healthiest year yet!

Remembering Michio Kushi

January 2, 2015   Dr. Neal Barnard   other


Photo of Michio Kushi from the Kushi Institute's Flickr page.


On Dec. 28, 2014, Michio Kushi—the man who introduced the macrobiotic diet to the Western world—passed away. He was 88. I first met Michio 30 years ago and was struck by the power of macrobiotic diets for health. Based on principles of Chinese medicine and interpreted through Japanese cuisine, this largely plant-based school of thought has helped many people regain their health. For those unfamiliar with macrobiotic diets, I would like to reprint the experience of Anthony J. Sattilaro, M.D., from my book Foods That Fight Pain. I first met Tony in 1986. The events I will describe here began several years before.

Tony was a successful physician who had started out as an anesthesiologist and had become president of Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia. One day, during a routine chest X-ray at the hospital, the radiologist found a large density in the left side of Tony’s chest. This was puzzling, because he had no symptoms, apart from a chronic backache. Given all the projects he had taken on in his work, he had not given much thought to his health. But this looked potentially serious, and a careful workup had to be done.
The radiologist scheduled a bone scan, which was done the same day. Before the exam was even finished, it was clear that the results were far from normal. The suspicious area on the X-ray turned out to be a large knot of cancer cells in one of Tony’s ribs. More clusters of cancer cells were lodged in his skull, sternum, and spine and were slowly growing.
This was not exactly what Tony had had in mind for that day, and he was scared. In a few hours, he had gone from being a busy doctor preoccupied with his work to being a patient with advanced cancer.
His doctors wanted to track down where the cancer had started in order to plan the best treatment. They scheduled him for biopsies to look for cancer cells. The prostate biopsy told the tale.
Prostate cancer is common in older men. When it begins later in life, it often grows slowly—so slowly, in fact, that doctors sometimes recommend no treatment at all. But Tony was just 46. At that young age, prostate cancer is extremely aggressive. In his case, it had already spread so widely that there was essentially nothing to be done. Surgical removal was impossible. His oncologist told Tony honestly that he would have to get his affairs in order.
Not long afterward, the pain of cancer cells growing inside his bones took hold. As it worsened, he began to need narcotic painkillers to get through the day. They caused problems of their own, particularly nausea, which, at times, was severe. Between the cancer pain and the side effects of his medications, he struggled to continue his work at the hospital for as long as he could.
Tony Sattilaro had no illusions about the disease, however. He had seen his share of cancer, as any doctor has. Moreover, his own father was dying of lung cancer at the time. Not long after Tony received his own diagnosis, he had to bury his father and try to support his mother as best he could.
After the burial, he drove to the New Jersey Turnpike to return to Philadelphia. Two hitchhikers—men in their midtwenties—were looking for a ride. And while they looked a bit scruffy, he picked them up, welcoming the chance to have someone to talk to. He told them of his father’s death, and that he himself was now under the same sentence. As it happened, these two young men had just gotten out of macrobiotic cooking school. Very taken with the power of food, they told him that cancer did not have to be fatal. He could change his diet and make it go away.
This he found thoroughly irritating. Here were two kids, half his age, with no medical background at all and no apparent recognition that he was a trained physician who knew all too well what he was up against. They treated his condition almost casually. But he did not stop them. He let them go on about yin and yang and how foods could affect the energy balance of the body, all of which struck him as complete nonsense. When he dropped them off, they asked for his address in order to send him more information. A few days later, a package arrived, sixty-seven cents postage due. Inside was a book about diet and cancer. It was not much more convincing than the young men had been, except that it included a statement written by a physician—a woman with breast cancer, for whom a macrobiotic diet had made an enormous difference. It had apparently driven her cancer into remission. That rang a bell, because breast cancer is a hormone-related cancer, as is prostate cancer, and here was a physician endorsing a nutritional approach. Still skeptical, but interested in learning more, he found himself on the doorstep of Philadelphia’s macrobiotic teaching center.
The word macrobiotic means “long life,” and the macrobiotic diet is based on grains, vegetables, and beans, which are balanced in certain ways using principles derived from Chinese medicine. Modern macrobiotic diets draw heavily on the traditional Asian foods, with generous amounts of rice and vegetables, and strictly avoid dairy products, meats, and sugary and refined foods.
Tony could find no double-blind studies to show what the diet could do, but he was driven by a mixture of curiosity and desperation. He shared meals at the center, and the staff gave him food to take home. The tastes were a departure from what he was used to, but soon something happened that made it all take on a very different flavor: His pain started to diminish.
He could feel changes day by day. He needed less and less pain medication, and in three weeks his pain was gone. He had no idea whether the diet got the credit for this change, but he was not about to stop it. Each day, he carried his chopsticks into the doctors’ dining room and, much to the amusement of his colleagues, followed an Asian peasant’s diet—with no Western indulgences whatsoever. His energy returned, and without any need for painkillers, he was able to concentrate on his work again.
A year later, he still felt well, and he decided to ask his treating physician if they could take a look to see what was going on. He wanted to repeat the bone scan that had shown the spread of his cancer. They scheduled the test, and when the results came in, his doctors were shocked. No trace of the cancer was left—not in his spine, not in his skull, or anywhere else. Presumably it was not gone, but it was too small to be seen on the scan. His health continued to improve, and he decided to leave Methodist Hospital to devote himself to exploring the relationship between foods and health, and to writing and lectures. He wrote a book about his experiences that became a best-seller.
When I met Tony, he was living in Florida, studying, writing, and exercising every day. He showed me the scan that had been used to diagnose his cancer and the follow-up scan that documented its disappearance. He had received endless letters from people with cancer seeking advice, to whom he responded saying that he honestly was not sure whether diet had made the difference for him. Certainly, he had had a remarkable recovery, but he could simply not say whether what had worked for him could do the same for others.
Then he told me something that made me nervous. He had decided to stop the diet. Having been free of cancer for close to ten years, he wanted to test himself to see whether the cancer really was gone. He gradually added fish and then chicken back to his routine.
I could not see why he would want to do this. A cancer that has been effectively suppressed is not the same as a cancer that is totally gone. And whether he believed that the diet brought his improvement or not, why rock the boat? His macrobiotic counselors had told him that getting cancer to go away once is enough of a challenge. Letting it return and trying to tame it again is something they did not want to try.
Not long after this, Tony’s cancer returned, and the pain that had disappeared for years enveloped him again. He had to resume his narcotic painkillers, and this time there was no going back. During my last conversation with him, his speech was slurred, and he was groggy and unable to concentrate.
After he died, the questions he had posed still remained. Did the diet change make his cancer disappear? Had abandoning the diet caused it to return? There is no way to answer these questions definitively, but a surprisingly large body of evidence shows that foods do indeed influence the hormones that drive cancer and also play a role in determining whether cancer will start and progress.
This does not mean that people with cancer should ignore other treatments. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal treatments all have important roles. But it does mean that, in addition to the other treatments a cancer patient is receiving, it is important to take advantage of the power that foods do have.

BREAKING: Santa is Lactose Intolerant

December 22, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   dairy



Turns out that all those years of milk and cookies haven’t been doing Santa any favors. This year, he’s finally breaking his silence and letting the world know that he is lactose intolerant. Up to 65 percent of people in the world are unable to digest lactose, with that number rising to 90 percent within certain ethnic groups. Data show that approximately 79 percent of Native Americans are lactose intolerant. So are 75 percent of African Americans and more than 50 percent of Hispanics. Asians have a 90 percent statistic of lactose intolerance. Some say that, prior to moving to the North Pole, Santa Claus used to be Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop. Since there is a lactose intolerance rate of 75 percent among people of Greek descent, it’s no surprise that Santa wants to ditch the dairy. Consuming dairy products can actually have worse consequences than ending up on Santa’s naughty list. Just two and a half servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese per day can increase the risk of prostate cancer by 34 percent. Mrs. Claus would also benefit from switching to plant milk, since dairy milk consumption has been linked to breast and ovarian cancer, with dairy products contributing up to 70 percent of the estrogen intake in the Western diet. A 2012 study debunked the idea of milk building strong bones. Researchers found that active girls who consumed the most dairy double their risk of bone fracture than girls who consumed less dairy. The study linked good bone health with vitamin D consumption—a nutrient not naturally found in dairy products. The saturated fat and cholesterol in dairy also contribute to heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States. Trying to lower fat intake by switching to skim adds a new complication—sugar. One cup of skim milk has just about as much sugar as five Hershey’s Kisses. Instead of leaving Santa a glass of dairy milk, why not try an energizing green smoothie? Not only is the color more seasonally appropriate, a green smoothie is packed with fiber and antioxidants to keep Santa feeling full between rooftops.

Swedish Vegan Jonas Von Essen Again Claims the World Memory Championship!

December 15, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   vegan


A plant-based diet can do more than keep you healthy and improve your mood—it boosts brainpower too, if the experience of 23-year-old Swedish student Jonas Von Essen is any example. On Dec. 14, for the second year in a row, Von Essen won the World Memory Championship, a competition that attracts entrants from dozens of countries who complete a wide range of mental challenges. One of his most impressive feats included memorizing 26 packs of cards in one hour. Von Essen has followed a plant-based diet for several years, helping him through both his victory this year in China and in the 2013 competition in the U.K. How does a vegan diet help the brain? Meat and other animal products contain saturated fat, which rapidly increases blood viscosity (“thickness”). The result, apparently, is diminished blood flow and poorer oxygenation. Plant foods provide beneficial antioxidants that can improve your health and lower your cholesterol, increasing the blood flow to your brain. Endurance athletes have used vegan diets for many years, and those aiming for maximal cognitive function may want to choose them as well.

USDA “Beefing” Up Special Interest Marketing Funds

December 8, 2014   Dr. Neal Barnard   animal products, industry influence, government and food policy


It Remember the old "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" advertisements? Those were sponsored by the beef checkoff program.


Red meat production and sales have declined as the public has become increasingly aware of the link between meat consumption and chronic disease. For consumer health, this is progress. However, the USDA is now proposing a new “checkoff” program to allocate additional funds—potentially totaling $160 million—towards the promotion and marketing of beef in 2015. And since the USDA also issues national dietary recommendations, this creates a clear conflict of interest. Beef is bad for your health. Physicians, researchers, and medical organizations clearly state the consequences of eating red meat. Harvard University has published numerous studies associating meat consumption with chronic disease. The World Health Organization notes the correlation between meat and colorectal and prostate cancers in its dietary recommendations. The American Heart Association published findings saying that women who had two servings per day of red meat had a 30 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease. Physicians Committee researchers found that eating meat is a risk factor for diabetesThe American Institute for Cancer Research recommends reducing and removing red and processed meat, as does the American Cancer Society. Even government officials in the United Kingdom have been clear in their recommendations to British citizens to cut red meat consumption. However, the USDA has remained ambiguous when discussing red meat. In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the USDA recommended reducing saturated fat and cholesterol intake—neglecting to mention that a sirloin steak overloads your arteries with 155 percent of your daily maximum intake of saturated fat and 152 percent of your daily maximum cholesterol. The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed checkoff program until Dec. 10. Click here to take action by submitting your comments to the USDA. Want to know more about the research? Check out this sample of studies from just the past two years linking red meat and chronic disease:


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