Why did you go vegan?
The year before I went to medical school, I worked as an autopsy assistant at a Minneapolis hospital. Whenever anyone died in the hospital, my job was to assist at the autopsy. One day a man died of a massive heart attack (probably from eating hospital food, but that’s another story). The pathologist cut through the skin and removed a pie-wedge section of ribs. And that exposed the heart. Slicing open one of the coronary arteries, he showed me the atherosclerosis that had clogged the artery, stopping blood flow and causing portion of the heart to die.
When the pathologist finished, I picked up the ribs and put them back into the chest, trying to make them fit with the other ribs. Then I cleaned up, washed my hands, and went up to the cafeteria—where it turned out they were serving ribs for lunch.
I didn’t become a vegetarian on the spot, but I couldn’t eat it. The look and smell of it were just too much like the dead body, because, of course, meat is a dead body. About a year later, I did make the transition, stopped eating meat, and never looked back. Several years later, I came to realize that dairy products and eggs are quite a long ways from health food, and I threw them out, too.
What was it specifically about dairy products and eggs that led to that conclusion?
It was just the realization that milk is a hormone-laden chemical mixture designed to fatten a calf, and an egg is a cholesterol-laden pill designed to build a chicken. They are loaded with fat and with protein that we don’t need, given how much protein we get already, and have none of the fiber and vitamins that keep people healthy.
What impact has going vegan had on your life?
I was already in reasonably good shape physically, so the diet change has simply helped me stay that way. From a psychological standpoint, though, getting away from animal products gives you an interesting perspective on humanity. Although my extended family raised cattle for generations, and I grew up eating meat and hunting, I have come to the conclusion that eating animals was one of humankind’s biggest wrong turns, and it surprises me to see people eating animal remains with very little sense of the effects of what they are doing.
What motivates you to stay vegan?
It’s easy. It never occurs to me to return animal products to my diet. The animals are better off, the Earth breathes easier, so to speak, and I’m reducing health risks—these are all important considerations.
But there’s one more thing. Growing up, we ate roast beef, baked potatoes, and corn, night after night. After I went vegan, I began exploring foods from many lands—Italian foods, Mexican foods, Chinese foods, and then Japanese, Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and many others. The flavors are exquisite. The idea of returning to roast beef, baked potatoes, and corn is not even on my radar.
Neal Barnard, M.D., is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, and President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Dr. Barnard has led numerous research studies investigating the effects of diet on diabetes, body weight, and chronic pain, including a groundbreaking study of dietary interventions in type 2 diabetes, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Barnard has authored dozens of scientific publications as well as 15 books.
As president of the Physicians Committee, Dr. Barnard leads programs advocating for preventive medicine, good nutrition, and higher ethical standards in research. He has hosted three PBS television programs on nutrition and health and is frequently called on by news programs to discuss issues related to nutrition and research.
Originally from Fargo, North Dakota, Dr. Barnard received his M.D. degree at the George Washington University School of Medicine and completed his residency at the same institution. He practiced at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York before returning to Washington to found PCRM.