We Must Address the Nutritional State of our Union

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Tonight, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address. It is my hope that the President will lay out a bolder vision for improving America’s health and combating childhood obesity.

A study released this week shows that pizza is the largest source of saturated fat, salt, and calories in children’s diets. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since pizza one of the top sources of saturated fat for America overall—second only to cheese. What is shocking is that pizza is still commonly served in school lunches.

One-third of children are overweight, one-fifth have high cholesterol, and one in three children born since 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life. Obesity raises the risk for diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer and contributes to lower academic achievement and increased school absences that will make it more difficult for youth to succeed in school and ultimately in their careers.

While the Obama Administration has expressed interest in improving health through a heavy focus on the Let’s Move program, the Physicians Committee is alarmed by the poor state of health of many Americans, the glaring health disparities between people who are economically challenged and those of means, and the continuing poor diet habits in children and the lack of progress in preventing childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions directly linked to poor diets.

This year, Congress must reauthorize the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that contains several child nutrition programs set to expire September 30, 2015. In the process, many in Congress are eager to weaken school nutrition standards—in particular, the fruit and vegetable requirement. The losers in this Congressional food fight will be low-income children who rely on these programs and continue to live with or be at risk of chronic health conditions.

We must not only maintain the nutrition standards in school breakfast and lunch as set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (PL 111-296), but go further to ensure low-income children have access to the most healthful foods by making these changes to all child nutrition programs:

  • Eliminating processed meats, which significantly increase the risk of colon cancer such that the American Institute on Cancer Research found no amount is safe to eat.
  • Requiring the option of a healthful plant-based meal.
  • Encouraging Congress to increase funds to schools and increase the reimbursement for breakfast and lunch to cover the increased cost of labor, school kitchen upgrades, food products, nutrition education for both food service workers and students, and ancillary costs to reinforce a healthier lifestyle in the school environment.

Encouraging healthier eating at an early age instills healthier habits for a lifetime and can be reinforced at school, at work, at home, and in the community. If the Administration is serious about improving the health of our nation, now is the time for action.

It’s not too late to sign our petition: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/lay-out-bold-plan-state-union-address-improving-america%E2%80%99s-health/ffnGXVPM

Nine Plant-Based Studies We Published in 2014

Last year, my colleagues and I published numerous studies investigating the effects of nutrition on health. Our research showed that eating meat is a risk factor for diabetes, while getting away from the “bad” fats in meat and dairy products can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s—or even improve productivity at the office!

To discuss all of the research surrounding the benefits of plant-based diets, we’ll be hosting a tweet chat on Jan. 22. To join in, follow #PlantBasedRx on Twitter or click here: http://twubs.com/PlantBasedRx

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Here are nine of our top studies from 2014:

1. Vegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure: A Meta-Analysis

Vegetarian diets reduce blood pressure. This meta-analysis compares blood pressure from more than 21,000 people around the world and finds study participants who follow a vegetarian diet have lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure, compared with people who consume an omnivorous diet.

Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, et al. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174:577-587. 

2. Meat Consumption as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes

This review showed that consuming meat products is associated with diabetes. Just as overweight, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure are considered risk factors for type 2 diabetes, research shows meat consumption carries similar risks.

Barnard ND, Levin SM, Trapp C. Meat consumption as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Nutrients. 2014;6:897-910.

3. The GEICO Study

Not only can adopting a vegan diet improve cholesterol and weight, but such a dietary change can improve signs of depression and anxiety, and boost productivity at work.

Agarwal U, Mishra S, Xu J, Levin S, Gonzales J, Barnard N. A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a nutrition intervention program in a multiethnic adult population in the corporate setting reduces depression and anxiety and improves quality of life: the GEICO Study. Am J Health Promot. Published ahead of print February 13, 2014.

4. Applying the Precautionary Principle

Research continues to show that plant-based foods reduce the risk of cancer and strengthen the chance of survival after diagnosis. While more research is needed in this area, this publication presents a set of six precautionary principles to reduce the risk of occurrence:

Gonzales JF, Barnard ND, Jenkins DJ, et al. Applying the precautionary principle to nutrition and cancer. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33:239-246.

5. Saturated and Trans Fats and Dementia: A Systematic Review

This review, which examined the diets and brain health of almost 20,000 participants, showed that reducing saturated and trans fat intake reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Barnard ND, Bunner AE, Agarwal U. Saturated and trans fats and dementia: a systematic review. Neurobiol Aging. 2014;35:S65-S73.

6. Dietary and Lifestyle Guidelines for the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease

Leading researchers in the field of brain health developed seven diet and lifestyle guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease prevention that offer practical steps for the public.

Barnard ND, Bush AI, Ceccarelli A, et al. Dietary and lifestyle guidelines for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Aging. 2014;35:S74-S78.

7. A New Model for Health Care

I highlighted the benefits of low-fat, plant-based diets when I was the keynote speaker at the Washington Academy of Sciences 2014 Awards Banquet on May 8. I challenged fellow physicians to consider diet and lifestyle changes not as “alternative” therapy, but rather as a conventional approach to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Barnard ND. A new model for health care. J Wash Acad Sci. 2014;100:23-43.

8. Nutrition Intervention for Migraine: A Randomized Trial

An intervention study conducted at the Physician Committee’s offices showed that a nutritional approach to migraine pain may improve headache intensity and frequency.

Bunner AE, Agarwal U, Gonzales JF, Valente F, Barnard ND. Nutrition intervention for migraine: a randomized crossover trial. J Headache Pain. 2014;15:69.

9. Vegetarian Diets and Glycemic Control in Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

People with diabetes looking for a more powerful treatment should consider a plant-based diet, according to this study by our team of American and Japanese researchers. Combining the results of six prior studies, we found that a plant-based diet significantly improves blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes.

Yokoyama Y, Barnard ND, Levin SM, Watanabe M. Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2014;4:373-382.

A “Cheesy” Resolution: The One Big Healthy Decision to Make This Year

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New Year’s resolutions always seem a little bit cheesy. By February, many people are trying to figure out how to cancel that gym membership or turn their treadmill into a coat rack. However, if you’re going to make one decision this year that sticks—resolve to remove cheese from your diet.

Let’s be honest—some folks think they just can’t give up cheese. However, once you realize just how bad something is for you, it suddenly doesn’t seem so necessary! Every year millions of Americans resolve to quit smoking or to cut back on their drinking–and the health reward is huge. The same goes for cheese. Just as giving up smoking can significantly decrease the risk of lung cancer, giving up cheese can lower the risk of prostate and breast cancers.

Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet. It’s also linked with the number one killer: heart disease. The high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat in cheese and other dairy products can increase atherosclerosis, leading to cardiovascular problems. Reducing cheese intake or replacing it with more healthful options—like hummus—can reduce your risk.

Trying to slim down before summer? You should know that 70 percent of the calories in cheese come from fat. Once you take away the cheese, unhealthful foods suddenly become much better for you! One example is pizza. Considered one of the worst diet foods, pizza becomes thin bread topped with pureed tomatoes and veggies when you remove the greasy cheese. You can also lower the fat and calories in burritos, salads, sandwiches, or even soup by making this one simple change.

Here are some cheese-free versions of popular recipes to get you started:

South of the Border Pizza
Pita Pizzas
Eggplant Lasagna
Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna
“Cheese” Sauce

And here’s a three-step program the Physicians Committee put together on Breaking the Cheese Addiction:

Step One: The Reality Check
Step Two: Making New Friends
Step Three: Cleansing the Palate

Resolve to make 2015 your healthiest year yet!