Animal Protection > Activist Interviews

Dr. Neal Barnard -- vegan legend is turning off those fat cells!

Dr. Neal Barnard's new book "Turning Off the Fat Cells" is just out so we took this opportunity to catch up with him and see what he's been up to recently. For those not in the know, Neal is the President of the American Group "Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine".


Q. Neal please tell us about your organization (PCRM) and your role within it?

A. When I founded PCRM in 1985, I was practicing at a large New York City Hospital (St Vincent's). I became troubled by the fact that doctors spent virtually no time with prevention or nutrition, and was also bothered by continuing unethical research practices, some of which involved animals and others of which involved humans. Currently we have about 5000 doctors who belong to PCRM. We also publish the magazine "Good Medicine", which reaches our 100,000 lay supporters.

Q. How did you research your latest book "Turning Off the Fat Genes?"

A. PCRM has been doing clinical research trials with Georgetown University for several years. There is also tremendous research literature on the effects of genes on weight and how their expression can be changed. I felt that it was essential for people to learn about it.

Q. This new breakthrough research of yours suggests that some genes -- including those that shape the human body -- adapt to outside influences. Please tell us more about that.

A. We are used to thinking that the actions of genes cannot be changed. And, for traits like eye colour or gender, that is true. But the genes for storing fat or burning it are not dictators giving orders. I think of them more like committees making suggestions, which is to say that we can influence their actions.

It's not complicated. The fact is, you are doing it every time you eat. The foods you choose turn some gene effects on and others off. Food is the single biggest trigger for the genes that affect our weight.

Q. How does one activate "thin" genes to lose weight and suppress the "fat" genes in the process?

A. Here's an example: Everybody has a gene for fat storage, which is located on chromosome 8, and its effects become obvious on our thighs and waistlines. But it essentially shuts off if you keep fat out of the foods you eat. If your fat-storage machinery has nothing to work with -- no fat to store, that is -- it quits. To put it in a nutshell: Number One, shut down the fat-storage gene by leaving the fat out of your diet. That means swapping the greasy meat sauce on your spaghetti for a light marinara, or trading your meat taco for a bean burrito. Avoiding fats -- animal fats and vegetable oils -- is as important as ever. Number Two, boost the fat-burning genes with slow-release carbs -- beans, pasta, vegetables. Don't follow the high-protein fad approach that avoids carbs completely. (High protein diets encourage the progression of heart blockages and do not promote long-term weight loss for most people). Third, keep your appetite-taming gene (on chromosome 7; the appetite regulator leptin is its product) working right by eating regularly and avoiding low-calorie diets. There is much more, but that will get you started.

Q. How do genes influence one's exercise?

A. Surprisingly enough, there are genes that determine your exercise ability. If you really cannot stand running and jogging, for example, it is not due to weak will. It is because your genes did not give your developing muscles the same rich blood vessel network that athletes have, so you tend to tire easily.

With an exercise programme, however, you can get much of the same advantage that people who have these genetic advantages already have.

Q. All the recipes in your new book are vegan. Please tell us about your views on veganism and how you arrived at those views.

A. I grew up in North Dakota, and come from a long line of cattle ranchers. Once I arrived in medical school, it became clear to me that the diets so many people are on -- and that I had grown up with myself -- are major contributors to health problems; heart disease, many forms of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, overweight, and many others. Research has clearly shown that getting away from animal products helps reverse heart disease and has a very powerful preventative effect on other health problems.

In my own life, I decided to leave meat off my plate in medical school, but was a bit slow to realise that dairy products and eggs are not health foods either. I have been following a vegan diet now since the 1980s, and find it not only healthier, but also much more attractive than the chunks of meat that were on my plate as a child.

Q. You have said that the same diet that is best for losing weight is also optimal for enhancing health and well being. So it's more complicated than just following a vegan diet then?

A. A vegan diet takes care of most of what we need to do. But you'll also want to minimize the use of oils generally, because while olive oil and other vegetable oils are better for your heart than chicken fat, they are as fattening as animal fats.

For people with very resistant weight problems, I recommend favouring carbohydrates that release their sugars very slowly, as I mentioned earlier. For example, white bread releases its sugars a bit too quickly, while rye or pumpernickel release them very slowly, which is an advantage. "Turn Off the Fat Genes" has charts to show which foods are which. Also, be sure to include in a good source of Vitamin B-12 in your diet. It's easy to do, and important.

Q. What makes your diet on weight-loss different from all other diets on weight-loss?

A. There certainly are lots of them, aren't there? I wrote this book to show how the body actually works. I also wanted to relate the findings of our own research studies. We help people to begin truly healthful diets, and it is absolutely wonderful to see, not only their success, but also their delight at their ability to break old habits and feel really healthy for a change.

In our previous studies, we have shown that diet changes do more than bring weight-loss. They lower cholesterol levels, get hormones into better balance (as we have found in our studies on diet, PMS, and menstrual pain), help reduce arthritis symptoms, and have many other benefits.

Q. Are there any actual foods that "fuel" fat genes and boost "thin" genes?

A. Chicken fat, beef fat, fish fat, fried foods -- these are the foods that fuel our fat genes by giving them raw materials for building body fat. On the other hand, all the foods from the legume group (that is, beans, lentils, and peas), as well as most vegetables and fruits release their natural sugars very slowly as to allow the body to minimize its need for insulin (insulin can slow fat-burning). These same healthy foods are extremely low in fat and high in fibre, so they satisfy the appetite.

In our research we use low-fat, vegan diets and find that the resulting weight-loss is about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per week, week after week after week. We also see dramatic improvements in cholesterol. We reported last year in the American Journal of Cardiology the greatest cholesterol lowering ever found in women under 50. It occurred in 5 weeks, simply using a low-fat vegan diet.

Q. Where do you think we are with gene research at the moment? I mean, is there a possibility that there might be found say a gene to counter the effects of menopause for example?

A. I am not so sure that we'd want to eliminate menopause. After all, if human fertility went on indefinitely, we'd have no end to health problems and population problems. If anything, it would be helpful to see puberty arrive later and menopause arrive a bit earlier.

But yes, scientists are continually unravelling the effects of genes. This does not mean, however, that we will always be the masters of what we find. Many genes exert very powerful effects. Genes for diabetes risk, for example, are widespread, and we cannot surgically excise these genes from our chromosomes. The good news is if we follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, we counteract their expression.

Q. PCRM has taken a very exciting stance for animal rights, given that we live in a humanocentric culture, PCRM holds governments accountable for gross negligence in allowing vivisection to flourish at the expense of human health. Have I got it right?

A. We promote higher standards in research, both technically and ethically. It is important to focus research on human disease, and modern techniques allow us to do that, with ease. The use of animals in research presents major ethical problems, as you know. But it also interferes with efforts to translate their findings into practical conclusions. When we set aside animal experimentation and focus instead on the human condition, assuming that our human studies are carefully planned and closely monitored, we engage in an ethical enterprise that advances science in a way that no other method can match.

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