According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of all US adults suffer from one or more chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, or arthritis. These diseases and conditions are among the most expensive of all health problems; in 2010, 86 percent of the nation’s total health-care spending treated people with one or more chronic medical conditions. These conditions are also the most preventable through adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Opening this January, the Barnard Medical Center (BMC) in Washington, DC, will be one of the first clinics in the nation to address the country’s chronic health issues through nutrition and preventive medicine. Neal Barnard, MD, founder and president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and now founder and medical director of BMC, will work work with physicians, nurse practitioners, and dietitians to help thousands of patients every year with weight loss, heart health, diabetes, cancer prevention, and childhood nutrition.
VegNews spoke to Barnard, a long-time vegan, about why plant-based nutrition can save both lives and billions of dollars—and BMC’s plans to change medicine as we know it.
VegNews: What role does poor nutrition play in preventable illness?
Neal Barnard, MD: Enormous. When I was in medical school, we imagined that diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension were typically caused by genes or even by chance, and we thought we had very little control over these processes. That has all changed. A healthy diet—a plant-based diet—dramatically reduces the risk that these conditions will occur and can greatly improve them after they’ve struck.
VN: How are health care costs associated with poor nutrition?
NB: By comparing disease rates in vegetarians versus meat-eaters, it is clear that a meaty diet is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs annually. In other words, a vegetarian diet can potentially save a lot of money. We have less financial data for vegan diets because they have not been as extensively studied, but I would guess that the cost savings would be even greater.
When people with diabetes come into my office, I always ask them to bring their medications. But they don’t bring in a bottle—they bring in a sack full of medications for blood sugar, cholesterol control, and blood pressure. The average person is spending easily $5,000 a year on medications—often much more. A healthful diet can reduce that to a great degree.
VN: Do you expect to be able to reverse type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease with nutritional support?
NB: Yes, in many cases. The National Institutes of Health funded our research showing that a low-fat vegan diet can dramatically improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes, as well as facilitating weight loss and improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol. The same is true for cardiovascular disease, which can be reversed with a plant-based diet.
VN: What is the connection between chronic pain and nutrition?
NB: Some types of pain are caused by poor blood flow. Others are caused by food triggers. Migraines and rheumatoid arthritis are in this category. Other kinds of pain are linked to hormonal effects—menstrual pain and some kinds of cancer pain are in this category. Each of these is strongly linked to food choices. This is very surprising for patients to learn, but it makes sense when we look at how these diseases manifest.
VN: Will you help other medical centers employ nutrition programs like those at BMC?
NB: Yes. We have a full curriculum that we offer to other clinics at no cost. Also, we host annual continuing medical education conferences, allowing for cross-collaboration among physicians interested in integrating nutrition and medicine in their practice, and an updated version of our Nutrition Guide for Clinicians will come out early next year. We provide a free copy for all practicing physicians and medical students.
VN: Can you tell us more about your community programs and classes?
NB: We host weekly Food for Life nutrition education classes in Washington, DC, throughout the US, and many other countries. In weekly classes, our certified instructors explain the science behind a plant-based diet with hands-on cooking demos, taste tests, and grocery store tours. We offer a “no-cook” version for participants who want to skip the culinary side. We also have an online 21-Day Vegan Kickstart program, available in English, Mandarin, and Spanish, as well as a special program for people from the Indian subcontinent.