Dr. Neal Barnard Hits the High Notes on the Topic of Diabetes February 21, 2023
Written by Aimee O'Grady
A quick search on the name Dr. Neal Barnard will certainly return his medical profile but also results about his musical talent, as he is an equal part physician and musician.
Dr. Barnard’s father left the family cattle ranching business and went to medical school, ultimately becoming the diabetes expert in Fargo, North Dakota.
Barnard, influenced by his father’s life path, also pursued medicine, and like his father, eventually chose to focus on diabetes. “I grew up in a community that didn’t focus on healthy eating and our family business helped to perpetuate unhealthy nutrition, albeit innocently,” he said.
During his father’s career in the 1950s, the best a doctor could do was manage diabetes with the hope that patients’ conditions worsened at a slower rate. But Dr. Neal Barnard knew there was more that could be done.
“My father used to make house calls. His Chevy Impala had a spotlight so he could see house numbers at night. In those days, there were fewer barriers between patients and physicians, it was a model I wanted to emulate,” he said. In his work, he takes time with his patients to learn more about their lifestyles, and habits to gain a more complete patient profile.
Dr. Barnard attended George Washington University School of Medicine and completed a psychiatry residency at GWU as well. Shortly thereafter, he received funding from the National Institute of Health to study new approaches to diabetes, finding that a low-fat plant-based diet was three times more effective at improving blood sugar control than a typical portion-controlled diet. Working with research colleagues at Yale University, he found that the diet change greatly enhanced insulin sensitivity and provided a new tool against diabetes. “Before long, things became much clearer than people thought during my father’s career. In time, we learned that we were able to help people improve dramatically and sometimes make diabetes disappear through diet alone,” he said.
Armed with this information, he made the call to his father to tell him. His father was supportive but surprised because, in his day, the medical community thought all along that diabetes was a progressive and unstoppable disease.
Dr. Barnard expanded his research by traveling the world looking for low-fat, plant-based diets that would prevent the onset of diabetes. Today his expectation is diabetes can be more than managed, it can often be greatly improved and even resolved. His research has also produced fascinating applications of healthful diets for overweight, cholesterol problems, menopausal symptoms, and dysmenorrhea. He has compiled his research into books about reversing diabetes, cookbooks, and the power of food.
Turning back to his upbringing, Dr. Barnard recognizes that the food industry is the second biggest hurdle regarding diabetes. “My own family was part of it. They were good, honest people making a living. We simply didn’t realize that our food product was causing people to become sick,” he said. He compares it to tobacco farmers of the 19th century.
The food industry may be the second hurdle, but the first one is people’s habits and attitudes toward food. “It is my role to help patients meet their goals and in many cases that comes down to educating them about their food choices. I have never met a patient who couldn’t change,” he said with encouragement.
When Dr. Barnard isn’t working with his patients and better-understanding diabetes, he is meeting with his band, CarbonWorks, which is working on its 4th album. “As a kid in Fargo, my parents had us study music and the arts. I played cello and guitar,” he said.
Dr. Barnard says he was a musician before he was a physician. “I love music, but it doesn’t save lives.” For him, music had to take the back seat after medicine.
His international travels take him on research trips for medicine, but also for music. His band members are from all over the world, and they record songs in French, Italian, and Vietnamese as well as English.
Dr. Barnard enjoys traveling and learning from others, a passion that began in his youth. As a high school student, he spent a summer in Belgium which he found humbling. “The family I spoke with spoke Flemish. They would tease me for my linguistic limitations a lot, and it made me humbler. When I returned to Fargo, I saw the world differently, I didn’t want to be looked at as the “ugly American”.
His volunteerism with MSDC is an extension of his desire to better understand and help educate people. Through advocacy and meeting with others, he hopes to reach more people.
Do you know a physician who should be profiled in the MSDC Spotlight Series? Submit a nomination to Robert Hay, firstname.lastname@example.org, for a future story. MSDC membership is encouraged for featured physicians.