Neal Barnard, Power Foods For The Brain


Part I – Neal Barnard, Power Foods For The Brain

Neal Barnard, M.D., is the president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. His research has been published in Scientific American, the American Journal of Cardiology and other major journals. Dr. Barnard is the author of six previous books, including Foods that Fight Pain and Food for Life. A frequent lecturer appearing across the country and an adjunct professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody. I’m Caryn Hartglass. Thank you for joining me today on It’s All About Food. Here we are. It’s October 22nd, 2013. It’s kind of a nice “Autumn in New York” kind of day. I just like breathing all that crisp, fresh air and thinking about all the wonderful fall foods that there are for us to enjoy, all those fall plant foods, right? OK. Today is a power-packed show. We’re going to be talking to some wonderful doctors. I want to get started because the information that we are going to hear about is so very important. My first guest is Dr. Neal Barnard. He is the president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. His research has been published in Scientific American, the American Journal of Cardiology, and other major journals. He is the author of six previous books, including Foods That Fight Pain, and Food for Life. A frequent lecturer appearing across the country, an adjunct professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, he lives in Washington, DC. He has a wonderful new book out called Power Foods for the Brain and we’re going to be talking about that right now. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Dr. Barnard.

Neal Barnard: Hi, it’s great to be with you today.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Thank you so much. Thank you for all the work you’ve been doing for decades now. You’ve really made a major contribution in making this world a better place. I can’t thank you enough for that.

Neal Barnard: That’s nice of you to say. We’re not done yet. There’s a lot more to do.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s so much work to do. And that’s why we need to keep our brains sharp.

Neal Barnard: That’s right, we do. And a lot of people, when they’re stacking up their breakfast, they don’t realize that it could affect not only how they feel during the day, you know that kind of brain fog that some people have, that could be affected by your food but also by the long-term risks like the poor memory that some folks get when they’re older or even something as serious as Alzheimer’s disease. Research has shown very strong links with what we eat and so I wrote Power Foods for the Brain to try to help people understand how that works and what the science is behind it.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, all diseases are unpleasant and scary. I think Alzheimer’s and dementia are probably the scariest, in my opinion, just because losing our minds, what else is there when we lose our minds? It’s so hard for our family and friends to cope with. It seems like, after reading your book, there’s a great deal of hope. Can we really avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Neal Barnard: Yeah, I think we can to a very substantial degree. Just so that people are clear what the terms mean. Dementia means the loss of mental function; your memory’s not good, but it’s a generic term. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. There are other types. Like you could have a stroke, where part of the brain is destroyed and so your memory is poor for that reason, or Parkinson’s disease, or other conditions can cause poor memory. But the most common cause is Alzheimer’s. And, yes, there’s a lot that we can do about it. Researchers looked at what people eat and there are certain diet patterns that are linked with a higher risk and other dietary patterns that are linked with a dramatically lower risk. So that’s all we need to do is kind of plug that in, plus other parts of lifestyle like exercise plays a role as well.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m interested the more I read about Alzheimer’s is this thing with the plaque in the brain. We’re learning more about heart disease and diabetes and how plaque in the arteries can have such a detrimental effect but I’m not surprised that plaque in the brain as well can be caused by certain foods.

Neal Barnard: Yes. Now plaque is just a generic word. Your dentist might say that you have plaque on your teeth. It just means a collection of something and in your arteries there are what are called arteriosclerotic plaques. If you were to open a person’s coronary arteries and look inside, you would see them. They look a bit like chewing gum except they’re hard as a rock and that’s arteriosclerotic plaque. Inside the brain it’s different. These plaques, or collections, are microscopic little round blobs that look sort of like meatballs or balls of yarn and they are collections of protein that have developed in the brain but they are not normal and they shouldn’t be there. We now know a bit about how foods might cause them to collect.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, so let’s talk about a few of them: my favorite foods, meat and dairy. Not!

Neal Barnard: Right. Well, in Chicago a research study got started in 1993, 20 years ago. They tracked what people ate over time. Ten years later, in 2003, they published some astounding findings that people tended to tuck into bacon, cheese, the foods that are high in saturated fat, that seemed to be an issue. Saturated fat is solid fat. It’s mostly in…well, dairy products are the number one source: cheese, whole milk, and so forth. Meat is the second source, also eggs. The people who ate the most saturated fat had two to three times the risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who ate the least. Secondly, trans fats, which are the hardened oils that are used in donuts and sometimes fryer grease—shortening you could call it—the people who tended to eat that had probably three to five times the risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who ate the least. You put those two things together: the bad fats really increase risk. But then they looked further and found that there were certain things that reduce risk as well.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, I’m a vegan. I’ve been a vegan for 25 years. I encourage everyone to fall in love with plants but I’m continually hearing all different kinds of things. Many nutritionists and doctors recommend low-fat dairy. So would that be OK?

Neal Barnard: Well, it doesn’t have the saturated fat in it but if you skim the fat off of milk, the number one nutrient left in it is sugar. It’s lactose sugar. It’s the main ingredient that’s in skim milk, which is why the calorie of cow’s milk is very similar to a typical soda. It’s a different kind of sugar but it’s still there and it’s there to make the calf fat and to give energy to the growing calf but it’s not there for us adult humans. It’s not the point of it. We’re better off avoiding it.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, now some of the scary things that I read about. There are things that we thought were important nutrients, like iron, that are being added into our foods, like breakfast cereals, that aren’t good for us.

Neal Barnard: You do need a little bit of iron in your diet. There’s no question about that. You need it for healthy hemoglobin in your red blood cells that lets them carry oxygen. However, iron is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have enough, you’ll be anemic. If you have too much, you’re iron overloaded. In the brain, the iron appears to oxidize. It rusts, in essence. That causes the creation of free radicals that can damage the brain. Copper is very similar. You need copper for enzymes in the body but if you have too much, it oxidizes too. Think of a penny that as it gets older, it corrodes and turns dark. That oxidation process happens in your body too.

Caryn Hartglass: So we need a little but not too much.

Neal Barnard: Not too much. And it’s easy to get too much. If you grew up the way I did with a meaty kind of diet, that sort of environment is going to lead you to overdose unfortunately, and many people do. Let’s say…what are the sources of copper? Not just the copper pipes that you might have. Shellfish, like lobster, crab, shrimp are loaded with copper. And something like liver is high in both copper and iron and it really has levels that I would say are toxic.

Caryn Hartglass: I remember when I was a kid we always used to say that liver makes you live but I don’t think so.

Neal Barnard: No. Keep in mind what the job is of the liver. Your liver’s got a rough job. It’s there to clean toxins out of your blood. So if you’re eating a pig’s liver, a chicken’s liver, a cow’s liver…it’s basically like tearing open your air conditioner and eating its filter. That’s where all the junk is. So, no. Frankly, people shouldn’t be eating animal products in any way, shape, or form. We are not natural carnivores but those who do seem to relish these particularly unhealthy parts of the animal.

Caryn Hartglass: OK. There was something that I read about that I loved reading about that I didn’t know about and that is that I’ve read many times over the years about the different kinds of iron: plant iron, non-heme iron, and the animal iron—the iron we get from animal foods—and how they were different and how the plant-based one was some would say less absorbable but in your book I learned how that’s a good thing sometimes, that the plant-based iron sometimes really works with us.

Neal Barnard: Right. We’re designed for a plant-based diet. If you consume green, leafy vegetables, for example. Spinach or broccoli or any of the others, they have non-heme iron. That’s a special form that is more absorbable if you need it but less absorbable if you already have a lot of iron on board already. That’s your body’s homeostatic mechanism for maintaining iron balance. The iron that’s in meat is to a large degree heme iron and that defies your body’s ability to control it. People are not meat eaters by nature and if you eat meat, your risk of becoming iron overloaded is very high.

Caryn Hartglass: I mean, how lovely is that, about iron?

Neal Barnard: Well, the human body adapted to the plants that were around it and that’s why we can absorb iron from plant-based foods and we can keep it from being too much. That’s also why when you go in to the produce counter the red color of a tomato, the green color of greens, the orange color of carrots—that’s beta-carotene—what your retina can see is the nutrients in these foods at a great distance. You see the lycopene in the tomato and it registers in the retina as bright red. The anthocyanides, which are the antioxidants in blueberries and grapes, have registered in your brain as deep, purple-colored. Our bodies are designed to seek out and take advantage of the nutrients in plant foods. We just take that for granted. Aren’t tomatoes pretty? They’re not just pretty; that’s the lycopene—it’s an antioxidant—screaming out at you to eat it so we have adapted these abilities to detect delicious, healthful foods and also to be repelled by other things. Fish doesn’t smell so hot. If you visit the meat counter, no one’s going to say, “What a lovely aroma.” It stinks and that is nature trying to tell you to get away from those foods.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, I just got a question from a listener and I’m going to ask you. She writes, “My dad was a slim, healthy eater all his life. He got plenty of omega-3s, ate mostly fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries, drank red wine, ran marathons well into his late 70s, was a scholar, New York Times crossword puzzler, an active lawyer until Alzheimer’s robbed him of his skills around the same time he died at 84, five years after his diagnosis. His mother and father had it. A younger sister also had it. She’s asking, so if they all had it, why should she think that she could avoid it?

Neal Barnard: OK. Well, first of all, that’s a terrific question but I’m very, very sorry for your loss. It’s a horrible thing to see a family member start to get this condition where everything that ever mattered to them is ripped away bit by bit. When you see this happen to a family member, you would trade it for just any other disease than Alzheimer’s. However, there is a gene called the atho e epsilon 4 allele. If you’ve got it from one parent, your risk of Alzheimer’s is tripled. If you’ve got it from both parents, the risk is multiplied by a factor of ten to fifteen. Some people have considered that a death sentence. It is not. We have learned what that gene does. What the gene does is it does not cause Alzheimer’s. What it does is it causes a protein to be formed in the body, a carrying protein. It escorts cholesterol from place to place. If people avoid animal products and if they’re not making much cholesterol and they’re not eating cholesterol, they’re not eating the saturated fats or the trans fats at all, their risk of memory problems later in life plummets dramatically. There are genes for lung cancer but if you don’t smoke, you may never get it. We should all assume that we’re at risk, whatever your genes may be. What we need to do is get the animal products out of our diet completely. You already knew you wanted to do that for your heart, and for your waistline, and frankly for the animal’s benefit and for the earth. There’s every single reason to build your diet from grains and beans and vegetables and fruits. But Alzheimer’s is the latest reason for that. Researchers in Finland looked at people who at age 50 were all reasonably healthy. Those who avoided saturated fat had an 80% reduction of memory problems later in life even when they had a gene. It’s really…it is a reason not to fool around with and to make a big change in your diet in the same ways a smoker does not fool around. You don’t sort of cut down. You throw the cigarettes away. If you’re a meat eater and you eat animal products, get away from them. A healthy diet is four groups: vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits. And take vitamin B12, which your brain needs. If you do those things, those four food groups and add B12 supplements, you’ve got 98% of it licked.

Caryn Hartglass: I love the way MyPlate looks a lot like PCRM’s plate. Did you have some secret representative in the government pushing that?

Neal Barnard: In 2009, PCRM, my group, the Physician’s Committee, went to the USDA and we said the pyramid is a nice shape but nobody eats from a pyramid. We need to be more literal and make a plate. So we sent them what we called the PowerPlate. There’s a plate divided into four quadrants. We sent an official petition to the Department of Agriculture saying, “Please adopt this.” Two years later, after not having heard back from them, they issued this thing they called MyPlate, which is four quadrants. I’m not taking credit for it but it looks remarkably similar to what we sent.

Caryn Hartglass: It sure does, only yours is better.

Neal Barnard: Well, thank you. I agree.

Caryn Hartglass: We don’t need that little extra circle on the outside, the milk products.

Neal Barnard: We did not include dairy and they put in a little extra circle to say, “Here’s your glass of milk.” But you really can make a case that milk really isn’t in any way necessary. It’s the number one source of saturated fat. People who avoid milk have every bit as strong of bones as people who consume milk.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, one more food question and that is about fish because a lot of people when they are diagnosed with some sort of dementia, their doctors say they need to eat fish.

Neal Barnard: Right. Well, fish do have omega-3 fatty acids. Those are the good fats. That’s true. Having said that, 70-85% of the fat in fish is not omega-3. It’s a mixture of saturated fat and various forms of unsaturated fat. Fish also have a lot of contaminants in them. Tuna have a lot of mercury in them. There are others of course. I already mentioned the problems with shellfish. But if you’re eating fish muscle, which is what you’re eating, it’s a lot more like cow muscle that it is like broccoli. It’s just not health food. We recommend if somebody wants to have good fat, there are traces of good fats in green, leafy vegetables, beans. If you want to have a little bit more, you’ll find them in walnuts, some soy products. If you wanted to go crazy, you could get exactly fish oil but from plant-based sources. At any health food store they’ll sell you DHA capsules. I don’t think anyone really needs it but if you wanted them, it’s there and in a much cleaner form than in fish.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, very good. So that’s the food portion but there’s a lot more that we can do to take care of our brains. You talk about sleep and what happens when we’re sleeping.

Neal Barnard: It’s fascinating. You know, all day long you have experiences. You learn things. You have interactions. And sleep…why do we sleep? Well, the brain’s got to file things at some point. You had all these experiences. They’re piling up on your desk like so many file folders. When you go to sleep, your brain can make sense of things and sort of reset itself and file away your memories of the day so you can find them later, speaking metaphorically. The first half of the night, the brain emits what are called slow-wave sleep brain waves, which we can measure with an EEG. That’s when we’re remembering and integrating memories. The second half of the night is REM sleep—rapid eye movement—when you’re dreaming. That’s when the brain is integrating emotion. So if you’re up all night, your memory will be poor but your emotional control will be poor too. You’ll be grumpy or giddy or switch back and forth between the two. So sleep is important. I encourage everyone to knock off at 10:00 and you’ll feel a whole lot better the next day.

Caryn Hartglass: I became a vegan a long time ago because I didn’t want to kill animals. I think we can learn so much from animals. I really enjoyed the story where you talked about different mental exercises we can do and how I think it was a chimp or something that was better at doing this one particular thing than humans.

Neal Barnard: Yeah. This is in a lab in Kyoto, Japan, where a chimpanzee…chimpanzees have an extremely remarkable memory capacity, particularly for immediate memory. The way this test works is they have a TV screen. The chimp sits on a stool in front of a screen. The numbers are from 1 to 10 that appear but they just flash there for a second and then they disappear and they’re replaced by blank squares and your job is to touch the squares in numerical order but the numbers are gone and so it’s just blank squares. Humans are OK. You flash the numbers from 1 to 10 and the numbers disappear and the squares are there. When the numbers disappear, you might remember the order they were in. Well, chimps can do that like crazy and a juvenile chimp can beat not only all the graduate students in the lab but the world’s memory expert, a man from England who could memorize a pack of cards in 30 seconds, came to compete with a juvenile chimp and the chimp just wiped the floor with him.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s crazy and we can learn so much from these animals that many we’re not treating very nicely.

Neal Barnard: Well, I have to say that the more we realize that animals deserve our respect but we’re also very different from them in many ways. We need to leave them alone. Leave them off our plate, leave them out of the laboratories. We can study what human beings need. In my research work here at the Physician’s Committee, we do a lot of work. We study human beings in ethical ways. We obviously are not going to be using animals in what we do. I think the more we focus on human beings the better off we’re going to be.

Caryn Hartglass: We have a lot to learn about ourselves. And what about exercise? That’s important too?

Neal Barnard: Yeah. Interesting study at the University of Illinois. They brought in a group of people up in years and everyone had some memory issues. What they asked them to do was just to lace up their sneakers and go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, starting out with a 10-minute walk 3 times a week and the next week a 15-minute walk, then the next week 20 and then 25. They got them up to a 40-minute walk three times a week and what they showed was that it actually reversed age-related brain shrinkage, particularly for the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is the seat of memory. It also increased the size of the hippocampus but it also increased memory in organized structured tests of memory. Why would it work? The reason it works, we believe, is because you’re oxygenating the brain. You’re getting nutrients to the brain in a way that you weren’t doing before. Most people are sedentary and are not oxygenating their brain very well and we pay a price for it.

Caryn Hartglass: Basically we just have to eat some simple plant foods, get some exercise, and life’s pretty good.

Neal Barnard: Yeah. It really is. I really encourage to people to not fool around, to have fun with it. Go in a big way. At PCRM we have a Kickstart program where for 21 days, you’re going to do it all vegan all the time and we give you online support for free to do it. Every day you get an e-mail from Alicia Silverstone or another celebrity and they say, “Hey, here’s another menu for the day. Here’s some recipes. Here’s a cooking video you might like to watch.” People really enjoy it. We have it in English, in Spanish, in Mandarin, Japanese also. We have one for people from India. Hundreds of thousands of people have done it. It’s good for your heart and it’s good for your waistline but it’s good for your brain too.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, thank you Dr. Barnard for writing this book. Is there anything else you want to tell us about it or what PCRM is up to these days?

Neal Barnard: Well, I hope people go to our site, It’s the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, I hope you’ll join us. I hope people will try this, but I have to also just say on a personal level if I could turn back time and get my own father and my own mother and my grandparents on a healthy plant-based diet instead of the meaty diets that they grew up on, I think we could have reversed the aging that robbed them of so many years. Don’t get me wrong, you’re not going to live forever. But why age the brain prematurely? Why develop Alzheimer’s if you don’t have to? A generation ago we thought that heart attacks were just a part of getting older. Well, we now know that’s it’s a disease that we can prevent and reverse. Alzheimer’s should be thought of as a target for prevention. Now’s the time to put it to work.

Caryn Hartglass: Right. We should all live long, healthy, quality lives. After about 120 or 130 or 150, who knows? We just fall asleep and move on.

Neal Barnard: Well, I’m going to die in a flaming inferno in the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at 100 or 150 years old. I’m going to overcook the corner and that’ll be it.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, well, see you then. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food, Dr. Barnard. Thanks for writing Power Foods for the Brain. I really enjoyed reading it.

Neal Barnard: Thank you. It’s been great to talk with you.

Caryn Hartglass: OK, well, that was Dr. Barnard. I wanted to mention before we take a break some things that are going on in my town in New York City. So you may be familiar with Victoria Moran. I’ve had her on the program. She’s a wonderful author. She’s recently written Main Street Vegan and Charmed Life and a whole bunch of other books. She’ll be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on October 29th, next week. You can find out more at It’s $22 and up and you’ll learn all you need to know to get from here to green, glowing, and glorious in no time. So if you need some help or want to bring someone you love to get that quick kickstart in person that might be a good event to go to. And then, another one of my wonderful friends, Fran Costigan, she’s been on the show and she’ll be on November 5th. On Monday, November 4th, she’ll be at Candle Café West, another fabulous restaurant in New York City, actually very close to the Progressive Radio Network studio. She willl be book signing for 4 to 6:30 PM on Monday, November 4th, the day before she’s on my program. So there you have it. Alright, why don’t we take a quick little break? And you can always send me an e-mail with a question now or later at Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.

Transcribed 1/11/2014 by Jennie Steinhagen

  5 comments for “Neal Barnard, Power Foods For The Brain

  1. Saturated fat DOES NOT cause heart disease! The whole saturated fat myth was based on a faulty study conducted by scientist Ancel Keys in the 1950s. He skewed his results in an attempt to ‘prove’ that saturated fat was the villain in heart disease. It was not. He conveniently omitted France and the Inuit countries – where diets are very high in saturated fats yet heart disease rates are extremely low. This so-called doctor merely rehashes faulty studies, twisting the truth.

    The truth is out now and there’s no going back. Throw out the ghastly margarine which is made from a slew of unnatural ingredients and is grey before it’s dyed yellow – and replace with natural healthful butter.

    • Thanks for visiting our site and making your comments. You are welcome to your opinion, but I am going to have to disagree with you. You write that the truth is out now, unfortunately the current research does not support your statement. Scientific studies do not link butter and saturated fat consumption to lower incidence of heart disease and cancer or heart disease reversal or longer life. You do see this with the thousands of studies on consuming whole, minimally processed plant foods which do lower incidence of heart disease and cancer and increase longevity. Butter is not a healthy food.

      Regarding the Inuits, the following article says they have the worst longevity in North American and high rates of cancer:

      France may have lower rates of heart disease but they still have heart disease, which we know is a diet disease, preventable and reversible. France also has higher rates of cancer than in the U.S. and that could very well be related to saturated fat consumption.

      I want to direct you to my interview with Brenda Davis. You can read the transcript, specifically where she talks about the Chowdhury study regarding butter and saturated fats:

      Here’s the part of the interview I am referring to:

      Caryn Hartglass: Now a couple of fat foods have been in and out of the press over the past few years. I want to talk about butter from cow’s milk. That’s gotten kind of sexy again this year.

      Brenda Davis: Oh, absolutely, especially after we had the release of Chowdhury’s study on saturated fats. So people all of a sudden are thinking—

      Caryn Hartglass: ‘Yay! Butter’s back! I’m going to put it in my coffee every morning!’ I mean what is that about?

      Brenda Davis: It’s just unfortunate, because people are just really not understanding the reality of saturated fats, and what the deal is. A lot of people don’t understand this, but saturated fats have not been vindicated. Basically what the research is showing is that you can replace saturated fats with carbs and either give yourself a boost or shoot yourself in the foot. If you replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, like sugar and white flour products, you might be doing worse than by eating saturated fats. And that’s what the studies are showing. They’re not vindicating saturated fats. Saturated fats still increases blood cholesterol levels and causes all sorts of problems. But what we’re starting to learn is that refined carbohydrates can be just as bad.

      Caryn Hartglass: So once again it comes down to how studies are set up. And sometimes when certain groups are looking for specific results, they design their studies in such a way to get them.

      Brenda Davis: Oh for sure. Well I can tell you—and I feel okay about telling you this—one of the authors of the Chowdhury study, Dr. Francesca Crowe—I contacted her to ask her about this study because I found it so surprising that she’s involved with EPIC-Oxford. EPIC-Oxford is one of the biggest studies ever done on a population that has a lot of vegetarians in the population and vegans. So this is a really, really important study and I found it a little odd that she’s involved in this saturated fats study. And so I asked her, “Could you explain to me what this study’s really showing, and if based on the study you would change your recommendations with regards to saturated fat intakes?” And what she told me was that when the study was first conceived, the results of their initial meta-analysis showed very strongly that saturated fats were positively related to cardiovascular disease risks. And then she said what happened was their paper was turned down. So then, after the journal rejected it, the analysis was re-run, changed in the outcomes, until it was something different. And then they revised and submitted it to another journal and it was accepted because it had such startling results that might get a little bit of media attention.

      Caryn Hartglass: Brenda, how do we know who to trust?

      Brenda Davis: And she said that because the paper was at such an advanced stage, she said, “I found out a week before it was going to press, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.” And she said, “I still think the best available evidence”—and this is a direct quote (I just opened her email)—“I still think the best available evidence from randomized controlled trials”—which are the gold standard, by the way—“show that saturated fat intake affects blood cholesterol levels, which is an important risk factor for heart disease. Therefore current guidelines, which are no more than 6%-7% of calories from saturated fat, by the way, recommend that people still minimize their intake of saturated fats.” That’s one of the key authors of the study! That’s not what you heard from the media!

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