Mad Cowboy Interview 08: Dr. Neal Barnard
(Part 01 of 04)



MC: "Can you explain the process of how you became vegan, in terms of nutrition and animal rights?


NB: "Well, I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and didn't think at all about what I ate, really. But I had a job the year before I went to Medical School, at Indianapolis at a hospital there where I worked as a "Morgue Attendant," or rather I was the "Autopsy Assistant." What it meant was that whenever anyone died in the hospital, my job was to help the Pathologist examine the body.


One day a guy died in the hospital of a massive heart attack, which happens all the time, and so my job was to help examine the body (which is not done with great delicacy). You do a "Y-shaped" incision on the chest, you go from sort of a "left shoulder down" to the middle, and a "right shoulder" down the mid-line. Then you cut through the ribs with what looks like a "garden clipper" and pull the ribs off the chest and stick the ribs on the table, and that exposes the heart.


And the Pathologist told me how when we looked into the coronary artery (they are called coronary because they "crown the heart") and we would see arteriosclrosis inside. I didn't know what this was and he opened up the coronary artery and it looked like "petrified chewing gum" inside the artery. It was hard as a rock. It was awe-inspiring to see what could go wrong in the human body. They weren't just in the carotid arteries to the brain, they were in the femoral arteries in the legs, in the renal arteries, meaning that this person was going to die of something sooner or later if it hadn't been a heart attack.


At the end of the exam, the pathologist wrote down his findings and walked out the door. And my task was to clean up the body. So I did that, I took the ribs and put them back in the chest (trying to make them fit with the other ribs), sewed up the skin, put the body back in the cooler and then I went up to the cafeteria for lunch.


They were serving ribs for lunch. The smell of it was just like a dead body and it looked like a dead body, and that wasn't it, I didn't become a vegetarian at the time. But I couldn't quite shake that... I mean, I grew up eating ribs..."


MC: "I remember how my grandfather would put hug slabs of cut bacon into a humongous frying pan in the morning as part of breakfast. He would save the grease to use later in cooking."


NB: "Yes, exactly. And my father grew up in the cattle business, all the Barnards, as far back as I know, they were all in the cattle business. My father is the one who didn't like it, and he left and went to medical school. That's the way we ate and so it wasn't like I was unfamiliar with it. I hunted, I killed animals... at the end of a shotgun. But it just started to make me think about things in a different way."

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MC: "Was that a transcendent experience or was that just the start of your..."


NB: "...the start of it. Around the same time I had a lab rat, who found its way into my pocket and it became a pet. We used rats in a laboratory I worked at in college."


MC: [laughing] "A companion rat?"


NB: "That's exactly right!


MC: "...take it for walks?"


NB: "You know, they're very cut little animals. And I have to say when she died..."


MC: [laughing] "She??"


NB: "...there are two sexes out there..."


MC: "Really?"


NB: "...and I found myself thinking that this is the most denigrated animal there is. You know people are afraid of rats, they consider them vermin. But to see the suffering in the most denigrated, despised, and ignored animal... to see how much they can suffer, and to see sort of what happens with the connections between what we eat and our health... all of these things were just percolating in my mind. And so in the course of being in medical school, I became a vegetarian eventually. I was a slow learner, okay."

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MC: "Well that's what I was wondering... was it a gradual progression or a matter of a particular discrete event that pinned it down for you."


NB: "Oh, it was gradual. I mean, I smoked cigarettes [laughing] ...I did all kinds of bad stuff. And so I..."


MC: "I don't know if I can put that in the interview transcript, you're supposed to be perfect..." [laughing]


NB: "I abandoned those habits. I first did an "ovo-lacto vegetarian diet." I did that for a number of years. And then later on I switched to vegan diet. I have to say that now I don't use the word "vegan" as a noun so much, I don't say "I am a vegan," I say "I follow a vegan diet."


MC: "For me it depends on the circumstances. I more and more prefer "plant-based" but in public, say in a restaurant, it's easier to just say "vegan.""


NB: "But that's not what I'm saying. What I don't say is "you are a vegan," I say "you follow a vegan diet." See what I mean? Or "you follow a plant-based diet.""


MC: "So you see "vegan" as a verb?"


NB: "I see it as an adjective. And the idea is that a person is still the same person they always were, it's just that their eating has changed. I follow a "carnivorous diet" or "I follow an ovo-lacto diet", I follow a "vegan diet," or as you know, there can be many many ways to evolve further. You can go to a lower-fat vegan diet, or one really free of junk food and vegetable rich. Raw, macrobiotic... there's a million ways to do it. But for me, I felt that going to a vegan diet was just great. It was so easy and so enjoyable."

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MC: "I've been no-added oil for over six and a half years now, since interviewing Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and although I've since lost my taste addiction to fat, initially it was hell... "pasta, basil, olive oil... yarrghhh." Did you go through a similar experience, did you just decide to give up oil, or do you allow a little in your diet?"


NB: "If I'm at a restaurant, I don't usually fight about it too much. But at home? No, I haven't bought a bottle of oil in years. I just never use it."


MC: "There was no break-point? A gradual..."


NB: "Probably just the same as you. And it was not just Esselstyn, it was in general. I think Esselstyn's been a tremendous pioneer, and his theories are just wonderful. But beyond that, if you think about it, there's no faucet on an olive tree that has oil coming out of it. It's not a natural product."


MC: "I love telling people there's no such thing as an "olive oil pool" and that it's not real food. It takes roughly 40 olives to make one tablespoon of olive oil."


NB: "Is that right? That's a good number. That's throwing away all the natural fiber. So there you go."


MC: "Actually I did the same thing. I've been plant-based for eleven years, and vegetarian for twenty years before that. The cheese issue is one of the things that kept me from going plant-based (one of the reasons I wrote my book). I'll enjoy asking you about what you've said concerning cheese and addiction later in the interview.


Anyway, my mother died of breast cancer when I was 14. This experience prompted my later intense research into diet and its relationship to cancer... it really had an impact on me. So... your father... I'm fascinated that he was a cattle rancher, the State expert, as you put in somewhere in your new book, on diabetes..."


NB: "Right."

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MC: "...and here you've gone and reversed diabetes through diet. A tremendous achievement... so I guess my question is that you're approaching the age of when your father had his first stroke. Is that part of what moves you forward? Of what compels you in your work?"


NB: "You're thinking of my grandfather. My mother's father had a heart attack at about age fifty. And he was dead by 55. He became sort of demented between those events.


My father died just last year. He lived a fairly long life. But he slipped into dementia year by year by year, toward the end."


MC: "It seems like perhaps in some ways, this new book is an homage to your father and what happened to him?"


NB: "I... I see what you mean, and it's a good observation. When you've seen dementia, up close and personal... you want to make sure no one else has to go through this, but it isn't just me and my family. The reason I wrote it, "Power Foods for the Brain," is that there are a million other families, more than that obviously, millions of other families, who are at the same risk and who are in store for the same tragedy. I'd like to see what I can do to stop them."

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