449 The New Science of Food, Hormones, & Health, Dr. Neal Barnard Discusses Healing, Improving & Preventing PCOS, Endometriosis, Insulin Function, PMS, Type 2 Diabetes, Hypothyroidism, Hyperthyroidism, Breast Cancer, Ovarian Cancer, & Prostate Cancer
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Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health by Dr. Neal Barnard
- How to lower estrogen levels
- Impact of decreasing estrogen levels on hormone-related illnesses
- Soy products affect hormone levels
- Why does eating animal products disrupt hormones
- Effects of dairy consumption
Do you have hormone-related issues like PCOS, PMS, endometriosis, or type 2 diabetes? In this episode, Dr. Neal Barnard shares how those can be healed by removing meat and animal products from our diet. He explains the effects of dairy consumption and why we should remove dairy products from our diet.
[00:00:00] Ashley James: Welcome to the Learn True Health podcast. I’m your host, Ashley James. This is episode 449. I am so excited for today’s guest. We have back on the show Dr. Neal Barnard. You were in episode 256 so it’s been a while. Now we’re in the 400s of our interviews. We had you on for one of your books, the Cheese Trap, which was amazing. I highly recommend listeners go back and check out episode 256 if you haven’t already. Dr. Barnard, you are on the forefront of the whole food, plant-based movement showing people that we can heal our body with food, and now you’ve come out with a book teaching us—especially women—how we can balance our hormones, gain fertility, breeze through menopause, and even how to manage things like cancer—when it’s hormone-related cancers—all using food as medicine. I’m very happy to have you back on the show.
[00:01:08] Dr. Neal Barnard: Well, thank you. It’s great to be back.
[00:01:10] Ashley James: Absolutely. We did dive a bit into your bio in our last interview and what led you to want to become a doctor that practices whole food, plant-based food as a way of healing people. So I want to jump right in, why did you write your latest book, Your Body In Balance? What compelled you to want to help use food to balance our hormones?
[00:01:34] Dr. Neal Barnard: Up until now, most people have thought of food in rather modest terms. That if you’re eating the wrong kinds of foods, you’ll gain weight. You change your diet and lose weight. Maybe your cholesterol will go down, your blood sugar can improve—that kind of stuff. We can be much more ambitious than that when it comes to tuning up our health.
Almost every function of your body is controlled by hormones. Hormones are made in one organ. They go through the bloodstream to reach another organ, and they tell it what to do. If you could control your hormones, let’s say you can control thyroid hormone, which gives energy to your cells, you can control estrogens, which controls sexual function, reproductive function. What if you can control insulin, which deals with your blood sugar levels? There are so many more. If you can control all those, you can control your health in a far more sophisticated way than you might have imagined. Amazingly enough, the key to it is food.
[00:02:36] Ashley James: Why is that? When did you first start seeing that food had such a profound impact on hormones?
[00:02:45] Dr. Neal Barnard: Well, it actually started out sort of by accident. I was sitting at my desk. A young woman called me up, and she had terrible menstrual pain. Many women have some menstrual cramps, but for maybe 1 in 10, it’s just off the scale, I can’t go to work today type pain, and that was her situation. I realized I could give her painkillers for a couple of days, but what would that do for the next month, the month after that, or the month after that? So I said to her, “Let me give you some painkillers for now, but how about if we try and experiment and see if we can prevent this from happening next month?” I have to confess, I just made an educated guess.
I said, “For the next four weeks, how about this, no animal products in your diet at all and keep oils to a bare minimum.” She called me up four weeks later and said, “This is the most amazing thing. My period arrived, I don’t have a single cramp—nothing.” And the month after that, the month after that. She was completely fine. I then did a randomized clinical trial with Georgetown University’s department of obstetrics and gynecology where we tested this in a larger group of women, and it was very effective. Different women got different effects. For some, though, it just was like night and day.
Anyhow, I can explain to you why that works, why that kind of diet change would affect estrogen levels. But the bottom line was I discovered that by changing the fiber content, the fat content to the food, and a few other things, we could control menstrual cramping. If you can control that, then that, in turn, means you have some control over endometriosis, over fertility, over all the things that estrogens will control.
[00:04:34] Ashley James: This is fascinating. So, you talk about not only fertility but menopause and even the sex hormone-related cancers in your book. Do you also talk about how to reverse type 2 diabetes in your book?
[00:04:50] Dr. Neal Barnard: Oh, yes. In fact, that’s what we’ve been really known for more than anything else. Type 2 diabetes is of course—well, maybe I should just back up. The problems we’ve been discussing so far like menstrual cramps or endometriosis, those are problems of estrogen. Estrogen is made in the ovaries, for the most part. If you have too much of it, it thickens up the uterine lining too much.
Researchers learned a long time ago that a high fiber diet will bring it down, a lower-fat diet will bring it down, and avoiding dairy products, in particular, will help because dairy products have estrogens that come from cows. I put all that together, I thought all right. A vegan diet doesn’t have any animal fat at all, and it’s very high in fiber so that’s what I’ve used. We kept oils low and that was the reason it cured her
But with diabetes, it’s a different thing. The hormone now is not estrogens, it’s insulin. It’s made in the pancreas, but I can control it with a remarkably similar diet. In 2003, the NIH gave our team a grant to try to find a better diet for controlling type 2 diabetes. What we have found is that a diet that’s really remarkably similar to the estrogen-controlling diet, using an insulin-controlling diet, you once again get rid of animal products, you keep oils really low, and you can do a couple of other things.
What we started to see was something we had never seen before, which was diabetes going away. I’m talking about diabetes being just gone in people that had it for years. Not to say that that always happens, but it almost always happens that people do improve, and they reduce their blood sugars and their medication requirements. Sometimes they just get rid of the disease, which I have to tell you is the most amazing feeling for the patient, and for their own outside doctors. They have never seen a patient cure themselves of what had been an incurable disease.
[00:06:53] Ashley James: If you can cure yourself of a hormone-related disease by changing your diet, then was it the food they were eating that caused the disease in the first place?
[00:07:05] Dr. Neal Barnard: Yes. Yes, it was. Sometimes in the face of genetic vulnerabilities. In other words, a diet loaded with Velveeta and fried chicken isn’t necessarily going to cause diabetes in everybody, but it does cause it in a lot of people. Right now, about 1/3 of the American population has either diabetes or pre-diabetes. and that is not because of sugar, bread, or rice. It’s not from carbohydrates. It’s because of eating fatty foods. The fat gets into the muscle and liver cells leading to a condition called insulin resistance, and we’ve been studying this, and then we’ve figured out how to make it go away and we’re just controlling the hormones by food.
[00:07:54] Ashley James: I used to have type 2 diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome, and I reversed both with a whole food, plant-based diet and taking supplements because I was very deficient in minerals like chromium. That was, for me, a complete game-changer to see that changing my diet had such a profound impact on my life. I know a woman who had such bad endometriosis. She was a friend of mine’s roommate. I saw her once a month for a whole week. She was in bed crying, curled up in a ball, and unable to work.
Then she became a vegetarian. She called it vegetarian but I watched her basically cut out dairy and meat out of her diet. I watched her be able to function now only in bed for two or three days instead of a whole week. She didn’t know to give up oil, she didn’t know to give up eggs, but I just saw an improvement in just that amount of switching. Why is it that eating meat, eating the flesh of an animal disrupts hormones, or making our body increase insulin resistance and also increasing estrogen? Why is it having that effect on our body?
[00:09:16] Dr. Neal Barnard: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. These are all the things that they don’t teach in medical school either, I have to tell you. We’ve had to discover them on our own. Maybe I shouldn’t be blaming the medical schools because much of the research just wasn’t done back then, but we do have it now, and it’s important for people to understand it. The means of controlling insulin, it’s almost the same kind of diet, but the mechanism turns out to be completely different.
Let’s take endometriosis. That’s what your friend had where she was just terrible, terrible cramps. For people who don’t know what we’re talking about, endometriosis is a really painful condition where cells that are supposed to be lining the uterus—that’s called the endometrial layer, the very inside of the uterus. Those cells, which are supposed to be kind of a little cushion when a baby is developing inside the uterus, some of those little cushiony cells have escaped. And they’ve flown out the fallopian tubes. Now they’re in the abdominal cavity, and they implant around the implant on the intestines, on the fallopian tubes themselves, on the surface of the ovary. And they expand and contract, they bleed, they cause scarring, and they hurt like crazy.
However, it’s been clear for a long time that they’re driven by estrogens. They’re driven by sex hormones. So if a woman has less estrogen in her blood, they’re going to regress. The reason that I started jumping into this was I had become aware that as part of cancer research, researchers discovered that estrogen drives the growth of cancer. I mean, this is not surprising. If you have more estrogen it makes cancer cells grow. But I found that some researchers had discovered that if you reduce fatty foods in the diet—whether it’s meat fat, cheese fat, or even donut type fat, any kind of grease—if you reduce grease in the diet, it brings estrogen levels down.
Completely independent of that, if you boost fiber which means fruits, vegetables, and beans, that also brings estrogens down. That was the reason why the young woman with menstrual pain, I said vegan diet then there’s no animal fat at all and everything’s got a lot of fiber. It’s going to be the best of all worlds.
Dairy is a particular issue because dairy actually has estrogens in it that come from the cow. You don’t have any dairy at all in your diet. If you do those things, people with endometriosis very often feel dramatically better.
There was a young woman whose story I described in my book, Your Body In Balance. She was in the Air Force. She had terrible endometriosis. She was slated for a hysterectomy because nothing could control her symptoms. She went on the diet that I’m describing and her endometriosis was simply gone. What was particularly amazing was that her doctor was convinced that not only would she be in pain every month because of endometriosis, but also that it had robbed her of her fertility. This disease process was so profound.
Well, not only did the diet change cure her endometriosis, but she wasn’t infertile at all. She was fine. She’s got three children now. She still got her uterus. She’s got her kids. She’s got a healthy vegan diet. She’s probably got a new doctor. Anyway, you see my point.
How many people go to the doctor and are told your menstrual cramps, your fertility issues, your endometriosis, it’s a sign of your hormones being out of balance. Here’s how you choose your breakfast to get your hormones into a better balance. Here’s how I would choose my lunch. Here are the best snacks for you. It never happens. It’s all some pharmaceutical solution that may work, or it may not work.
[00:13:15] Ashley James: But it really just masks it and it doesn’t address the root cause.
[00:13:18] Dr. Neal Barnard: Or worse, you can go to the doctor and have your uterus and ovaries removed and be told that this is God’s will. When in fact, it might have been the will of Kraft, McDonald’s, KFC, or something. But it had nothing to do with a deity bringing this on.
So anyway, you asked me why did I write Your Body In Balance? Because I thought people need to know how to control, not just diabetes, endometriosis, or PCOS, which you were dealing with. PCOS is a hormonal condition, which to a great degree, is responsive to food changes and things like thyroid conditions.
People don’t even know where their thyroid is. All they know is I got out of bed today. I got zero energy. I stepped on the scale, and I’ve gained a pound since last week. I look in the mirror and my hair doesn’t look right. You go to the doctor and these are all non-specific symptoms, but the doctor says to you this is fitting a pattern. Let me do a blood test. And the doctor finds your hypothyroid—you’re low in thyroid. Your thyroid gland is at the base of your neck. It gives your cells energy, and when it’s just not working, you just feel rotten.
What does the doctor do? Puts you on thyroid replacement medication, which you will be on for the rest of your life. What we have discovered is that there are—in some cases—dietary causes of it that are really easy to rectify. You may need medical care, you may well. Don’t fire your doctor or cancel your doctor’s appointment, but let’s see if there’s a dietary change that can get you back on track.
[00:15:06] Ashley James: There’s also a list of plant-based doctors. I don’t remember the name of the website. I’ll probably put it in the show notes, but you can google plant-based doctors. There’s a directory of doctors who study your work, study these studies, want to do labs, and help their patients balance their hormones. Maybe using medication at first, but then also help them with their diet. That’s something to look at.
I’ve always gone to naturopathic doctors because they love looking at labs, diet, and nutrition first before entertaining the idea of putting you on a prescription as a last-ditch effort. Whereas many other doctors, like you said, this is how the schooling was—the medical school was at the time. They didn’t have the resources to teach us that food can be medicine, and now we see it plain as day.
You’ve talked about really doing your best to reduce or eliminate oil altogether, cut out all dairy products from cows. Of course, you can do plant-based dairy. You could make it in your own home. It’s just made from nuts, soy, rice, or oats, and then looking at eating lots of fiber from plants. But what about specifically the harm that comes to our hormones by eating animal flesh—by eating fish, cows, and chickens? Why does that disrupt hormones?
[00:16:47] Dr. Neal Barnard: Okay. By the way, first, to the point you’re making earlier about finding a doctor who understands this. There are different sites, and the one that I might recommend—if you go to the website pcrm.org, that’s Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, pcrm.org. Just in the little search thing, put find a doctor. You’ll see lots and lots and lots and lots of names that come up. About five years ago, we launched a primary care clinic because we were doing so many research studies that other people could not participate in if they didn’t have exactly that condition. We have a primary care clinic here. It’s called Barnard Medical Center and we do telehealth visits.
[00:17:32] Ashley James: Excellent.
[00:17:33] Dr. Neal Barnard: Yeah. Many, many, many states of the United States, people can do telemedicine if they are able to, and then we’re gradually expanding beyond that. It’s just barnardmedical.org.
[00:17:46] Ashley James: Excellent. I’ll make sure the links to everything you mentioned are in the show notes of today’s podcast at learntruehealth.com. That’s exciting that someone could work with you, one of your staff members, or one of your colleagues and look at their specific needs and adjust their diet accordingly. So getting onto them, I’m really excited to understand specifically what it is about eating animal flesh that disrupts our hormones?
[00:18:12] Dr. Neal Barnard: Okay. If we are speaking of insulin, insulin is a hormone that is made in the pancreas, it goes through the bloodstream to the surface of a muscle cell. Let’s say I’m eating animal flesh, I’m eating a hamburger. The hamburger is some protein but a fair amount of fat. Even if it’s “lean meat,” there’s a surprising amount of fat in there. Even if it’s the leanest chicken—you take off the skin, it’s only chicken breast—it’s still about 23% fat. That animal fat is absorbed by the body, enters the muscle cell. And then when insulin tries to get that cell to do what it’s supposed to do, which is to pull glucose out of the blood, the fat stops it from working. The fat in animal products interferes with insulin sensitivity. It causes insulin resistance.
That’s also a problem with PCOS. In women who have polycystic ovary syndrome, they are very often insulin resistant as well. So getting the animal products out of the diet means there’s no animal fat to interfere with insulin action.
The other thing about it is that animal products don’t have certain things in them. They don’t have any fiber. They don’t have any complex carbohydrates, and so as a result, fiber normally helps the body to eliminate excess hormones. Your liver removes estrogens from the blood, and it sends them through the bile duct into the intestinal tract and out they go, but it only works if fiber is there to escort them. Fiber is like a broom that sweeps it out.
If you ate chicken breast or salmon for lunch, they’re not from plants, they’re from animals so there’s no fiber in them at all. If that’s the case, the estrogens in your intestinal tract that the liver carefully removed don’t go through the intestinal tract anymore. They reabsorb back into the blood. The fiber is essential to making that happen. So what’s wrong with animal products? They got a lot of fat, they don’t have any fiber, and if you want a contaminated product, animal products are always the worst. They are the ones that tend to be filled with chemicals much more than plants.
[00:20:30] Ashley James: Well, that makes sense. We’ve heard that eating a sardine, there’s less mercury in a sardine than in a tuna because the tuna went around eating all the sardines. The cow is consuming tons and tons of grain, soy, or whatever it’s been fed that has pesticides. Pesticides concentrate in its muscles, and then when you eat the cow you’re getting the concentration of all the feed it was ever given with all those pesticides and chemicals. Even organic I have to question. What about the idea that there are hormones in animal meat? If you’re eating a cow and the cow has its own hormones—even though it says no hormones added—the cows were making their own hormones. Is that a factor? I mean, we’re eating the estrogen that was once a cow’s estrogen?
[00:21:24] Dr. Neal Barnard: I think it matters for dairy, I think it matters less for meat. The reason I say that is dairy products—well, on meat just very, very quickly. If you go out to a farm, many of the cows will have hormones injected into a little pellet on their ear that will release either testosterone or synthetic testosterone, or estrogen or synthetic estrogens into their blood. The reason the farmers do it is that they get better growth of the animal per unit feed, so it makes money for them. But with dairy, it’s a bigger issue because every glass of milk you ever had came from a cow who was impregnated annually. Which by the way is not a treat for anyone. If you ever happen to go buy a dairy and say I want to see how you artificially inseminate your cows, it is a creepy process.
The other creepy thing is that after nine months of gestation, their babies are not allowed to stay with them. Their babies are taken away, and they basically go through this annual procedure where they’re artificially inseminated, their babies are taken away just so that we can take their milk, which nature had in mind something else.
Apart from the ethical issues of it, they are milked during much of their pregnancy. A pregnant cow makes extra estrogen and extra progesterone, and it gets in the milk. The milk concentrates them as it’s turned into cheese. The average American adult eats 37 pounds of cheese every year, plus milk, plus ice cream, plus yogurt, plus butter, and so you’re getting estrogens and other hormones from the milk and the milk products.
Now, people will rightly say it’s only a trace. True. However, in research studies, you can see a clear-cut association between dairy consumption and fertility issues in men, in cancer mortality in women, in breast cancer incidents in women. A brand new study from California just showed a substantially higher risk of breast cancer in milk-drinking women.
How much estrogen do you want to feed to your seven-year-old daughter or your or your eight-year-old son? It is completely unnatural, but you and we all grew up with this idea—milk for strong bones. Nature said, wait a minute, cows don’t make calcium, cows eat calcium. It’s an element in the earth that gets into the grass, and if you’re eating vegetable matter like grass, you get calcium.
Hopefully, you’re not eating grass, but you’re eating broccoli, kale, collards, brussels sprouts, or other greens that you like. That’s where calcium comes from. The whole idea that you need dairy for calcium is an invention of the dairy industry.
[00:24:20] Ashley James: I’ve heard—possibly you said it—that there was a study where they looked at a meta-analysis of all the countries that have the lowest rates of osteoporosis. They found that those that drink the least amount of dairy or no dairy actually had the strongest bones in comparison to those countries that drank the most cow dairy had the weakest bones and the highest rates of osteoporosis. Can you speak to that?
[00:24:53] Dr. Neal Barnard: The evidence that dairy products help protect against bone fractures is extremely weak, not that it hasn’t been studied. The dairy industry has been very eager to come up with health rationales for consuming a bowl of ice cream, but the fact of the matter is it really doesn’t work very well. All kinds of problems come along with it. Anyway, to just speak to your point, there are confounding variables here. People who tend to avoid milk have a number of other health benefits. They’re eating other things. That may account for why they have stronger bones. But at a minimum, you just can’t really find robust research showing that dairy helps. I think that’s the most conservative thing to say. It’s just not going to benefit you.
But along the way, a researcher at Harvard named Dan Cramer years ago started looking at infertility. As you know, when women are maybe in their mid-20s, that’s sort of peak fertility time. When she’s 10 years older than that, she’s in her mid-30s or late 30s, her fertility is less. She started getting calls from her mother who says, I know your career is important to you, but you better not wait. Your clock is ticking. That kind of stuff.
So Cramer looked at a variety of countries, and he looked at the decline in fertility as women go from their late 20s to their late 30s. He compared it to dairy intake. Thailand, not a big ice cream eating country. Cheese pizza is not their thing. It’s not a lot of dairy in Thailand. And the drop in fertility during that time from the late 20s to late 30s in women is maybe about 25% reduction.
Then you look at Brazil. Brazil, a little more dairy, more cheese. About a 50% loss of fertility during that time. You look at the United States where it’s all dairy all the time, and the reduction in fertility is about 80%. If you look at a variety of other countries, it’s not a perfect pattern but it’s quite compelling that high dairy intake appears to interfere with ovarian function. What we are speculating is the issue is that the problem here, in this case, isn’t just the estrogen or progesterone from the cow, but it could be—surprisingly enough—dairy sugar.
The sugar in milk is lactose. And in your digestive tract, if you can digest it, it breaks apart to release galactose. Galactose and glucose come out of the lactose sugar. The galactose can be toxic to the ovary. What supports this is that researchers have also shown that galactose is linked to ovarian cancer. What we think is happening is that there’s not free galactose in much of anything that people eat—very little of it. And your body doesn’t take it in.
But dairying countries, dairying regions of the globe—maybe many thousands of years ago—started to spawn genetic mutations so that in some populations—particularly what you might refer to as Caucasian populations—carry this mutation so that they can break down the lactose sugar to release galactose. They think this is a wonderful advantage because I’ve got a new food source, and I don’t get the digestive problems that the rest of the world gets. Most of the world is lactose intolerant. You get diarrhea when you drink milk, but not these white people. For white people, maybe 85% are lactose tolerant. They don’t get digestive symptoms.
Well, that’s not so great because what happens is then you are digesting the sugar to release galactose into your blood, which is going to harm your fertility, increase the risk of ovarian cancer—according to the best evidence we have—and create all kinds of havoc that nature never thought in a million years humans would find nutrition in the udder of a cow. But people are creative. I mean, we stumble into all kinds of problems. So there you have it.
[00:29:20] Ashley James: You’ve taught us how to naturally decrease the estrogens to healthy levels. What changes can we make in our diet to helpfully increase progesterone for women who have low progesterone?
[00:29:34] Dr. Neal Barnard: Well, it’s largely a question of balance. If you bring down the estrogen in the right way, progesterone will take care of itself. Now there are people who will say that yams have natural progesterone in them. That’s true, but the bioavailability of it is modest in my view. There are people who will turn it into creams that they will sell you, and you’ll see them online. I am not aware of any toxicity of them. You can certainly try them. You look up natural progesterone creams, they’re typically yam-derived, perfectly fine. Whether they will work for you or not is another issue.
[00:30:10] Ashley James: It’s a matter of eating so healthy the body comes back into balance. Well, the idea that sex hormones and stress hormones are derived from fat, that the body takes—isn’t that a form of cholesterol that it then turns into these hormones?
[00:30:28] Dr. Neal Barnard: Yeah, isn’t that funny? Cholesterol is a bad actor, and it really is, but your body actually does make modest amounts of cholesterol to turn into testosterone, estrogen, and a variety of other compounds. Cholesterol is sort of this raw material. The way we run into trouble is if we start eating cholesterol from eggs or other animal products.
One area that’s been a surprise—and you’re speaking about these hormonal changes—menopause is a time when many women really suffer from hot flashes. Here, it’s not so much the hormones causing it as the hormone roller coaster causing it. Your estrogen levels were high when you were 48, but now you’re 52 and your hormones have changed dramatically, so you get hot flashes that can persist.
Back in the 1980s, I believe it was, a researcher from McGill University named Margaret Lock went to Japan. She interviewed about 1200 women, and they just didn’t report hot flashes. The question was, well, maybe Japanese women are kind of reticent. They don’t want to talk about their intimate things. So she did really in-depth interviews. It’s kind of a backache. When I went through menopause. I was a little moody for a little while. Did you have hot flashes? No, I didn’t really have it. There was no Japanese word for it. Same with China, same with parts of rural Mexico.
What all these places had in common was that their dietary staples were plant-derived. There might have been some animal products, but not much dairy in particular. When Japan westernized—McDonald’s, KFC, and everybody came in—the rice was discarded in favor of chicken, pizza, and dairy. We started to see hormonal problems come in. Breast cancer rates doubled. Menopausal symptoms became common. Depression became much more common. The other piece is that soy products seem to have an anti-hot flash effect.
Anyway, in Your Body In Balance, when I wrote this book, I described all of this. I talked about soy, and I suggested that women who have hot flashes go on a vegan diet and consume soy. A woman called me up about six weeks ago. She said, “Dr. Barnard, I did what you said. I got terrible hot flashes. I did it in a certain way. I didn’t want to just do soy milk. You don’t know what it is in the soybean that’s good for you.” She said, “I took my pressure cooker, and I just took whole soybeans that I got at the co-op. I threw them in there, and I’ve been eating half a cup a day. My hot flashes were gone in three days.” I was like, “Holy cow. That’s amazing.”
Whether this will work for a large group of people, I don’t know. There have been quite a number of studies on it, and what intrigued me was that these studies have been done on extracts or soy foods where it’s a part of the soybean. But in her case she said, I’m going to use the whole damn thing. I’m using the whole soybean, half cup a day. If anybody’s listening to this broadcast and hot flashes are driving you crazy and you can’t sleep more than 90 minutes at night without being awakened by night sweats, you might try this approach. No animal products in your diet at all, keep oils low, take out your Instant Pot, boil up a big batch of whole soybeans, which you’ll find online. Have a half a cup of them a day—they’re like pine nuts really—on your salad. It’s really not much. You just eat them, see what happens, and let me know.
[00:34:25] Ashley James: That’s fascinating. I heard that the plant estrogen—the phytoestrogen—actually binds to oxygen receptors and thus blocking our real estrogen from taking hold. So it sort of lowers estrogen dominance in that way. There are so many misconceptions about soy. That it would cause men to have breasts, which is not the case. It actually helps to lower the estrogen to healthy levels, plus you mentioned that it has fiber which helps our body to regulate estrogen. That’s great for women, but is it healthy for men to eat half a cup of cooked soybeans a day?
[00:35:04] Dr. Neal Barnard: Sure. If you happen to go to the gym and mention that you like soy products, some of the guys will say that’ll give you man boobs. That’s what you’re talking about. This concern that soy will make a man effeminate. Go to the beach in August. If you’ll see a chunky guy taking off his shirt and you notice that he’s got a little bit of breast enhancement, go right up to him and ask how much tofu did you eat this week? Tell me about your soy yogurt consumption. He’s going to say, what are you talking about? I don’t eat any of that stuff at all.
[00:35:45] Ashley James: I drink beer and I eat cheeseburgers.
[00:35:49] Dr. Neal Barnard: And wings and so forth. What has happened in his body is that as he’s eaten animal products and the fat they contain, he’s gained weight. Fat cells are not just bags of calories. Fat cells convert testosterone into estrogen. Yes, and they do it even while you’re asleep. This happens in women, and it happens in men. As he’s gained weight, he’s got more estrogen in his blood. So some of what he’s got at the breast area is fat, some of what he’s got is breast tissue.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Gynecomastia, a little bit of breast tissue, is extremely common. Most men have a little nubbit of it here somewhere, and particularly when they’re an adolescent, but they can have it. But the idea that soy is encouraging that is not true. With regard to women, let me be clear. Soy products do affect your cancer risk, and here’s how they do. They reduce it.
[00:36:43] Ashley James: Yes.
[00:36:44] Dr. Neal Barnard: Soy products reduce cancer risk by about 30%. This is really important because you’ll hear people say that soy has phytoestrogens that cause cancer. By about 2004, we had maybe eight really good studies comparing women who consumed zero soy to consuming a really large amount of soy. I’m talking about soy milk, tofu, tempeh, or something like that. The pattern was striking. The women consuming the most so had about 30% less risk of developing breast cancer. And then researchers started looking at women who had had cancer in the past, and all be darned. It did not turn out to be the case that their cancer would progress from soy. It was the opposite. Women consuming the most so they had about a 30% reduction in the likelihood of dying of their cancer.
What we now know is that there is more than one estrogen receptor on a breast cell or on other cells too. There are alpha receptors and there are beta receptors. The soy isoflavones are attached to the beta receptor. The way you can think of it is in your car, you got the gas pedal. You step on the gas your car goes. You got the brake. You step on the brake, what happens? It stops. You’ve got more than one estrogenic receptor. If you’re trying to calm things down, a product that attaches specifically to the beta receptor is going to be your friend.
[00:38:13] Ashley James: Fascinating. What about prostate cancer?
[00:38:20] Dr. Neal Barnard: It’s quantitatively similar. Men who consume the most soy, once again, have about a 30% lower risk of developing prostate cancer, but there’s more to it here. If you’re consuming soy milk you are not consuming cow’s milk. Cow’s milk—completely separate from soy—is a driver of prostate cancer.
[00:38:47] Ashley James: Wow.
[00:38:48] Dr. Neal Barnard: At Harvard, this must go back 20 years, the Physicians’ Health Study—huge study—brought in physicians because they’re good reporters of their health and they track what they eat if you ask them to. The men consuming the most cow’s milk had about a 34% increased risk of prostate cancer. They followed it up with a much bigger trial, and they showed that if anything, it was an even higher risk, maybe 60% higher risk. What we now know is that in the same way as a calf suckling from a mother cow—when the dairy products go into the cow’s stomach, it triggers the production of something in the blood of the calf called IGF-1—insulin-like growth factor—that helps the calf to grow. So milk in the calf’s body encourages growth.
Well, you might be a 55-year-old man but milk does the same. It increases IGF-1 levels in your blood, and IGF-1 is a potent growth stimulus specifically for cancer cells. You do not want to treat your body as if you are a calf hell-bent on growing. There is a reason why nature does not ever permit adult animals to drink dairy products. Every single mammal drinks milk from their mother. Every single mammal goes through a weaning process where that growth stimulus is shut off. Human beings being so creative and restless, we always figure out ways to defy what nature had in mind for us. This lifelong suckling at Dairy Queen is creating all kinds of problems for us.
[00:40:36] Ashley James: Fascinating. I could talk to you for hours about this. I know that you’re very busy and you have to go. I’d love to have you back on the show any time to continue sharing this information. I urge listeners to get your latest book, Your Body In Balance. Of course, the link to buy your book is going to be the show notes of today’s podcast at Learn True Health. I love that you discuss how men and women can balance every hormone in their body. You have mentioned several times eating a healthy vegan diet. Of course, Oreos are vegan. That would be considered the unhealthy vegan diet.
For those who’ve never considered a plant-based diet to balance their hormones and decrease their chances of getting cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and also balance their weight accordingly, and also increase their longevity. We could go on and on about the benefits of eating a whole food, plant-based diet. Could you just wrap up the interview today by explaining what it looks like to eat a healthy vegan diet that promotes healing and decreasing disease?
[00:41:45] Dr. Neal Barnard: Sure. Let me describe how we walk people through this change. If you ever quit smoking or something like that, this transition is much easier than that, and the payoff is enormous. Here’s how we do it and I’ll tell you what the foods look like.
The patient comes in, they got diabetes, they want to get rid of it. Or they’ve got cramps, they want to get rid of it. They have PCOS, whatever the issue is. Step one is we’re going to take seven days. During the seven days, we’re not going to change any part of the diet, but what we are going to do is take a piece of paper and I’m going to write on the paper the word breakfast, leave a little space and then I’ll write lunch, then I’ll leave a little space I’ll write dinner, and I’ll leave some space and I’ll write snack.
I’ll say please take this paper and come back seven days from now, and I want to see a list of foods that have no animal products in them that you actually would like to eat in each category. The patient says that’s it? Okay. They come back and they say, “Well, my first breakfast item is I have corn flakes with cow’s milk normally, but I went to the store and I got some almond milk. It’s pretty cool, so that’s on my list. I have oatmeal but I have to top it with cinnamon and raisins and then I’d like that. I tried this vegan sausage that’s pretty cool.” So they got their list.
“For dinner, let’s see, my partner and I went out. We went to an Italian place and they made angel hair pasta with an Arrabbiata sauce. The next week we had a bean burrito without the cheese.” Okay, great. By seven days, they got a pretty good list. So I say, “Now, step two is three weeks. During the three weeks, I want you to eat from your list. No animal products at all for the three weeks. You’re going to be vegan now but it’s easy because it’s only 21 days, and you already picked out the foods you like.” “That’s it?” “Yeah, that’s all I want you to do.”
You keep in touch with them because they’ll hit some bump in the road. But after three weeks, two things will have happened. Number one, they’re feeling better, they’re losing weight. Physically, things are changing, but they also discover that their feelings about foods are changing because they haven’t had any animal products for three weeks. That is more than enough time to completely rethink your foods. Now, you say to them, “Well, how do you like it?” “Well, I kind of like where I’m going. Can I do this for another week, doc? And I say, “Yeah, let’s just keep going and see how it goes.” Okay, great. So it’s very easy.
As the months go by, if they have diabetes, their medication requirements drop. If they’ve got menstrual pain, they discover it’s changing. All kinds of things will change within their bodies. The foods are in four categories: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, or legumes. So that turns into foods that are on international scale staples for everybody. I already mentioned pasta with marinara sauce, vegetables. In a Latin American restaurant, beans, rice, and tortillas. In a Chinese restaurant, rice, vegetables, or tofu dishes. You go to the sushi bar, you don’t have the fish sushi but you have the cucumber roll, the sweet potato roll, or the asparagus roll. You can have the seaweed salads, the regular salads, and the miso soup.
What I discovered, I grew up in North Dakota. Every day of my life was roast beef, baked potatoes, and corn. Pretty simple diet. When I went vegan, I now live in Washington DC. It’s amazing. The palette of foods available is huge. If somebody said, no, you can’t have any more you know spaghetti Arrabbiata, you can’t have any more bean burritos, you can’t have any more Thai food, Vietnamese food, Ethiopian food, go back to North Dakota and just eat your roast beef. That to me would feel depriving.
A vegan diet is extremely vast. It does require thinking things through a little bit, but after two weeks you’re a master. Instead of thinking in simple terms that foods cause me to gain weight or raise my cholesterol, you now have a much more complex view that foods allow me to control my hormones that control every other aspect of my body. I can control them for ill, I control them for good. It’s like driving your car. You can drive recklessly, or you can drive in a really careful way that gets you where you want to go.
The reason I wrote Your Body In Balance was to give this owner’s manual to people. And if you don’t mind, I want to brag just really quickly.
[00:46:23] Ashley James: Oh please do.
[00:46:24] Dr. Neal Barnard: Lindsey Nixon is a genius in the kitchen, and she did all the recipes for it. When she sent me the recipes, she said, “Neal, you’re going to really love these recipes. They’re easy, they’re quick, they’re all 100% vegan, but they are so familiar and wonderful.” She’s right, they’re great. But she sent a note with them that said, “Dr. Barnard, this way of eating that you’re describing cured my cramps too.” I thought okay, that’s validation.
[00:46:51] Ashley James: That’s so cool.
[00:46:53] Dr. Neal Barnard: I hope people will give it a try, and more importantly, I hope they’ll share this with somebody else. The work that you do in sharing this information, not just me but the other people that you talk to, you have a real talent for getting life-saving and life-changing information out to people. So I hope people won’t just benefit themselves and keep it to themselves. They got to tell other people about what you’re doing.
[00:47:15] Ashley James: Every woman has a friend with horrible cramps, hot flashes, or endometriosis. It’s like every woman. Some men too think about their sisters, their wives, their moms, or some of their best friends. Listeners, think about it, how many women can you list right now on your fingers, how many women can you count that you know—you’re close to, that you’re friends with, your family, your acquaintances with, or that you work with—that have expressed hormonal problems, concerns about breast cancer, or thyroid? How many women?
I mean, most women I know express concerns about their thyroid or are on thyroid medication or diabetes. Like you said, one in three people in the United States is diabetic or pre-diabetic. The entire population would benefit from your book. I know Christmas is a few months away, now’s a great time to buy several copies of Your Body In Balance and gift them. Give them early though. Don’t wait until Christmas. Give them early out of love and care for those for all the women and men in our life who suffer from thyroid-, prostate-, breast cancer-, estrogen-related imbalance. We can help. We can turn this ripple into a tidal wave and help so many of our loved ones.
I wish I’d had your book when I was—in high school, I was keeled over suffering from cramps so bad it was so incredibly painful. By the time I was 19 I was told I was infertile and I’d never have kids. Because of nutrition and because of food, we conceived our son naturally who’s 5 ½, and I’m currently pregnant with our second one. That is all due to holistic medicine. It is all due to using nutrition, using food, and a whole food, plant-based diet.
I’m a raving fan. I wish I’d had your book back when I was 16. This is a book we could give to all the young women and all the people in our life we love. I’m thankful that you came to the show. I’m thankful that you’re spreading this information. I’m excited to dive into your book and those recipes sound great. Thank you so much for coming on the show, and please, come back any time. We would just love to have you here.
[00:49:37] Dr. Neal Barnard: Great. Well, thank you, Ashley. It’s been really fun talking with you today, and thanks for spreading the word.
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