Last month I had the honor to talk to Dr. Neal Barnard about the food/hormone relationship and how to get our body in balance by eating a vegan diet, before he gave a lecture on the new science of food, hormones, and health at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fl. I hope this information is helpful to everyone!
What brings you to Miami and how is the city treating you thus far?
Well, Miami treats everyone well, don’t’ you think? at least I feel like a very fortunate guest. I always love coming here and is not just because Washington DC is freezing cold, but Miami is just a city like no other. And I’m here because I’m going to get on a cruise ship because I’m going to be lecturing on the cruise for a couple of days and I’m getting off in San Juan and going back home, so while I’m here I’m talking to people about my new book: Your Body In Balance.
For the people who are not familiar with you and your work, who is Neal Barnard?
I’m a Doctor I live in Washington, D.C. but I actually grew up in North Dakota and when I was young I didn’t think about food really at all. I mean every day we ate roast beef, baked potatoes, and corn, and that was about it except for special occasions when it was roast beef, baked potatoes, and peas that was about as exciting as it got. But as time went on and I got into my medical training I started to realize that our food choices can change everything about your life and so I got very excited about it. I’m talking about power to really feel healthy again. So I wanted to spread that message to other people.
What does it mean to be vegan?
To be vegan simply means not eating animal products at all.
In the book you talk about hormones, your previous work was mainly focused on diabetes, is that correct?
Well, I’ve written about diabetes, Alzheimer’s diseases and maybe more popular than anything is people wanting to lose a little weight or sometimes a lot of weight. But this new book is about something that people might think of it as a bit mysterious and that’s their hormones, but they are super important because your hormones control everything about you. From a women’s menstrual cycle and her reproductive function, hormones can change all that. So you can feel terrible or you can feel great depending on where your hormones are if they are in balance or not. For a man testosterone or thyroid hormone or diabetes, all of these are hormone conditions.
Would you say that this book is for people who have had a bad diet through their childhood, they are dealing with some kind of hormonal disease and now are looking to regain their health?
You know sometimes people think they are on more or less an ok diet and they didn’t connect the diet that they’re eating with the symptoms they have. I’ll give you an example I got a call from a young woman and she said: “I can’t get out of bed,” she had menstrual cramps. Now maybe about 1 in 10 women have cramps that are so bad that they just can’t go to work maybe one day every month. And so I said: “ok, I can give you pain killers for a couple of days but this is going to happen again next month, what can we do to stop it?”
I suggested something I don’t think any doctor ever suggested to a patient before for menstrual cramps. I said how about this, let me give you pain killers for now, but for next month between now and then how about no animal products in your diet at all? I’m going to make you vegan. And in addition, I’m going to take away any greasy stuff, no more greasy salad dressing or French fries dripping in grease. She made those changes and her cramps were gone the next month, they didn’t happen at all and the next month and the month after that, she was completely cured.
So I did a research study with Georgetown University, and we showed that it wasn’t just her it helps lots and lots of women. So how many women would ever think that menstrual cramps could relate to what you ate for breakfast or lunch or dinner? Many people don’t realize that the foods that they eat control how much estrogen is in their blood, that’s the sex hormone, and that will determine if you have cramps or not. So my point of this book is to tell people to solve those problems by making the right diet choices.
Is it because of that particular phone call that you decided to write about hormones?
That started it off, and so that’s what made me do larger research study. I’ll tell you one more thing in the course of that research study we asked all of the women who were participating, because we were trying to see if food changes would reduce their menstrual cramps, not to take any hormone medication because that would confuse the study and that would include birth control pills. So we asked the women if they were sexually active to use some kind of contraception that was not the pill and one of the women said: “ don’t worry about me I don’t use the pill or any contraception at all because I’m not fertile.” She said she and her husband had given up the idea of having a baby several years before. She said we’ve both have been evaluated and is not him he’s but it’s me I’m infertile so we don’t use birth control.
The second month that she was on the healthy vegan diet she came into our research center and she said Dr. Barnard I have bad news and I have good news. I said what is, the bad news is that I have to leave your study and the good news is that I am pregnant! And here is the point she thought she was infertile, she wants infertile she was just out of balance. And the woman with cramps she thought she had a disease but she didn’t have a disease she was just out of balance and foods can get you back into balance if you know which ones they are.
In the book you talk about hormone haywire, but many people don’t know what that means can you elaborate on that?
So what I call hormone “haywire” means hormone confusion from having extra hormones in your body. You have a certain amount of hormones in your body, your ovaries make estrogens, estrogens are hormones that go in the blood and they affect your health. Hormones are chemicals that are made by your body to control other parts of your body. So let’s say a woman eats cheese pizza, seems normal but she doesn’t feel very well much of the time and everyday she has cheese pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese because she loves it.
The cheese came from milk, the milk came out of a cow’s body and the cow was making estrogens so it gets into the milk and is concentrated in the cheese. And so in every bite of cheese she’s eating, she’s getting females hormones added to her own hormones. In other words what’s going around in her blood is a mixture of her hormones and cow hormones, but she is completely unaware of.
Now don’t get me wrong it’s not very much it’s just traces, but your average person eats about 35 pounds of cheese every year, plus ice cream, plus whole milk, plus yogurt, plus butter, plus all the dairy products that are baked and the cookies and cakes. So people are getting estrogens that do affect their health.
How do vegans take care of their gut?
We know that we have to have healthy bacteria in our digestive tract because that not only means good digestion, but if your digestive tract is healthy your mind is healthy because they feed back.
Some people think that they have to keep putting bacteria into their digestive track all the time with yogurt that is not exactly true. Here is why, imagine if you had a piece of ground out in the wild somewhere and let’s say you have never actually planted any bushes or trees or grass, would things grow there? Sure they would because nature finds a way to plant on its own, so in your digestive track you have bacteria all the time whether you take probiotics or not.
As long as you are eating a healthy diet, that’s loaded of vegetables and fruits and whole grains, it fosters the growth of healthy bacteria. If you eat animal products it tends to foster the growth of unhealthy bacteria. So my point is you don’t have to have yogurt, in fact, the healthy bacteria that are in yogurt they didn’t come out of a cow they just added them at the factory.
Conventional vs Organic. Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional?
Yes! They are not necessarily richer in vitamins or other nutrients. Rather, their advantage is that they are free of pesticides and other chemical residues. This matters more for some foods than others. For example, if strawberries are sprayed with pesticides, traces will remain on the peel, which, of course, is not removed prior to eating. This is less a problem with avocados since the peel is discarded.
A lot of vegans are deficient in vitamin B12, and for centuries we have been told that is found in animal products, so why not eat those products in moderation?
Vitamin B12 is not made by animals or plants. It is made by bacteria. In a cow’s intestinal tract, bacteria produce B12, which ends up in meat and milk. But supplements are far healthier. Their absorption is much better and they are free of fat, cholesterol, hormones, and the other undesirables found in animal products.
What are the three takeaway messages from the book?
The first thing is to understand that foods can control your hormones and that you might need a diet change.
Secondly, I encourage people to focus on the short term, just try a healthy vegan diet for three, four weeks it doesn’t have to be a long time and you will see the change that it would have in you.
But there is a message that I think is more important than anything else and that’s don’t be silent! everybody knows somebody who has issues with their health, but they don’t have the answers and t heir doctor hasn’t told them, so it is very important that we share the book’s message with other people.
To buy the book click here Your Body In Balance.
Interview By Cynthia Paola Bautista