Episode 11
Dr. Neal Barnard Advises a Plant-Based Diet

Dr. Neal Barnard

In this week’s episode, Jesse goes deep into diet with Dr. Neal Barnard, Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.  He is author of a new book called Power Foods for the Brain, which discusses both foods that pose threats to the brain and foods that protect it.

Dr. Barnard is a world-renowned nutrition expert and outspoken vegan, and the author of 15 books and host of three PBS television specials.  He specializes in the effect people’s diets have on their bodies and brains, and their propensity for Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.  His research revolutionized the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes, and his new work aims to use his research findings to prevent risks to brain health.

Don’t Forget To Eat Your Plant-Based Food Groups

The number of Alzheimer’s and dementia-related illness sufferers are set to triple over the next few decades, with over 5 million such patients currently in the US.  According to Dr. Barnard, this trend is linked to two main factors: One is simply that Baby Boomers are now reaching the age where Alzheimer’s is a threat to them — but more insidious is the major avoidable cause: the increased consumption of meats and cheeses in people’s diets.

In Dr. Barnard’s discussion with Jesse, he talks about how humans are great apes, and evolved eating plant-based foods — and that our bodies are ill-equipped to be carnivores.  We don’t have good long-distance vision or smell senses for hunting prey (like a hawk or a dog does), but we have the ability to see vivid colors, well beyond many animals, to detect fruits, berries and nuts.

Because of our increased consumption of meat and animal based foods, Dr. Barnard explains how we tend to overdose on metals (that’s right, metals) in our diets, and experience dangerous build-ups of iron, copper and other metallic minerals in the brain.  These minerals oxidize in the brain much like a copper penny turns green or an iron bar rusts.  To compound the issue, everyday living can add to this build-up with the iron cookware in your kitchen, the copper pipes in your home, and the daily vitamins that often have more of these metallic minerals than your body needs.

Are You Pumping Iron or Storing Iron?

Though metals can build up in your brain, there are also some vitamins that will help you flush out the oxidizing build-up known as Homocysteine.  Dr. Barnard recommends Foliate, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12, which you can get from eating foliage like spinach, beans and bananas.  He also says that getting vitamins from your food diet is far more effective than consuming them in pill form, since there are variations of the vitamin compounds in nature, whereas many supplements are simply of one type.

To radically reduce your intake of toxins and improve your intake of healthy, brain-protecting power foods, Dr. Barnard enthusiastically recommends going vegan.  While diet changes can be daunting, and many people experience initial difficulty, he says that after a just few weeks many people feel so much more light and energetic, and experience faster post-workout recovery times and improved mood, that even a radical diet change can stick.  Many of these perceptible improvements are due to what he says is reduced viscosity in a vegan person’s blood, resulting in improved oxygen circulation to the muscles and brain.

This Week in Neuroscience: Don’t Study Before a Test, Exercise!

A recent analysis of 19 studies show that 10 – 40 minute bursts of exercise help children focus when working on cognitive tasks shortly after.  This is believed to be caused by an increase in blood flow to the brain.  Harvard psychologist John Ratey (author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain) says this supports previous evidence showing exercise before a test or speech can improve mental performance.

Read the full article here.

    Episode Highlights

Key Terms Mentioned


Jesse Lawler is a technologist, entrepreneur, health nut, world traveler, and personal optimization fiend. He is founder of Los Angeles-based mobile app company Evil Genius Technologies. In his free time, he enjoys photography and travel, and has done unsupported bicycle rides of over 6000 miles throughout North America, Asia, and New Zealand.

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  • Comments

    1. Jason McAuley says:

      Thanks for doing the podcast Jesse! Your time and effort into doing this is much appreciated. I like how you have adjusted your interviewing style to not shy away from asking questions that put the interviewee to the test in justifying their claims. I think you could go even further with it in some cases, but it is definitely in the right direction.

      It was an interesting podcast…. and rather conflicting with some of the ideologies I have been hearing in regards to dietary choices. For example, Dave Asprey, while not a doctor himself, does extensive research into bio-hacking and has a blog talking about what he has found. His claims are for the most part supported by references to legitimate studies ( http://www.bulletproofexec.com/ ) as well as his work with doctors. Basically, he refutes the idea of a vegan diet.

      Also, he was on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about biohacking some time ago and brings up a lot of interesting information (which I am sure a lot of people listening to this podcast would find incredibly interesting). You can view the podcast here:


      He also talks about use of nootropics as well. Keep in mind, sometimes Joe’s podcast contains… crude dialog, but none the less, he can be insightful and has countless, interesting guests on his show.

      It would be great if you could get Dave Asprey on this show!

      Thanks again, and keep it up! The podcast continues to improve each week :)

      • Thanks Jason! Much appreciated, and I must admit, although I’m aware of both Joe Rogan and Dave Asprey, I hadn’t known they’d already cross-pollinated each other’s media spheres and I can’t wait to give your link above a listen. And YES, Asprey is probably the Grand Poobah of self-experimentation in this space, and I would love to get him on the show. :)

    2. This was a truly great episode. I’ve listened to it twice now and I’m strongly starting to consider going vegan (I’m currently a pesco-vegetarian). Keep up the good work and keep inviting interesting guests; I’ll keep listening!

      • Deal! Talking with Dr. Barnard was darned interesting for me too. Although I’d recommend giving a read to the book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” before going 100% vegan. I say this having been 100% vegan for 6+ years. A fascinating read with a lot of dietary implications.

    3. H Forrest Alexander says:

      I agree with the hypotheses that some vegetable products (e.g. leaves, fat-rich nuts and seeds, and that the “Paleo” diet as typically phrased is flawed. Obviously, we live in modern times and we need modern diets.

      However, Dr. Neal Barnard was both dismissive (“the Paleo fad”) and misleading.

      I could cherry-pick a lot of examples, but one that stuck out to me was his initial assertion that humans have dull senses. Sensory evolution is far more nuanced than that. As Barnard himself later points out, humans have excellent color vision among mammals, as do other apes. Additionally, humans have a better sense of smell than typically assumed (for a review, see Shephard 2004, in PLoS Biology). Upright position keeps humans away from the ground and typical contaminant risks such as soil bacteria and animal waste products. This means less filtering is needed in the nasal cavities. Dogs and mice have great orthonasal smell in terms of olfactory receptor density, but humans may have the advantage at characterizing some smells due to more efficient detection of molecules due to less filtering, superior neural processing of the input, and better retronasal smell (experienced as food odorants enter the nose via the nasopharynx). I don’t think any of these factors support either of an exclusively carnivorous or vegetarian diet. The point is, these issues are nuanced. Saying “humans have poor senses, unlike predators” falls through.

      Incidentally, we can blame our senses and our evolution for making us crave food in excess, too. When was excess ever something to worry about? Only recently. On a personal note, I find that it is actually very hard to eat meat in excess, because it is so satisfying (thanks to salt and free amino/nucleotide umami receptors in my tongue, my stomach’s sophisticated enteroreceptor system that lets my brain know how long the fat and protein took to digest and how much energy it gave me, etc), as compared to insulemic starchy vegetable products. Again, I don’t use this to claim that meat is superior to plants. Obviously, some plants are very good, and it’s admittedly pretty difficult to crave enough leafy vegetables to consume them in excess.

      Other points, wielded confidently, seem inconsistent or incomplete to me. For example, primates will take meat when they get it. Especially chimpanzees. We primates are smart and ruthless, and while there are specialist frugivorous or folivorous primates around, that kind of ecosystemic niche doesn’t even seem as reasonable outside of the rainforests. Would we be able to eat as much fruit and vegetables as we do without agriculture, in all of the parts of the world we inhabit? Speaking of primates taking meat, the “vegetarian”, healthy, long-lived cultures often eat a lot of fish. Bear in mind, research is increasingly showing that omega 3 fatty acids (in their most bioavailable forms, DHA and EPA, practically limited to animal products due to inefficient conversion of ALA) are a significant dietary factor in brain health (sorely lacking from modern diets). Again, I’m not claiming to completely disagree with any of Barnard’s points, but his aggressive claims are dramatic simplifications of complex processes. The same goes for claims leveled at meat, which were cursory one-liners (“you wanna get colon cancer?”) without good explanations of the hypotheses underlying them. Thanks, doc. I get that “more vegetables” was the focus, but “vegetables are good” doesn’t convince me that “meat is bad”.

      Anyway, I guess when you pit naturalistic claims (e.g. strictly Paleo diet or an analog based on a herbivorous ancestry hypothesis) and absolute statements (like the idea that meat will always kill you, or that you have to choose between dramatic excess of meat and none) against each other, you end up needing to gloss over some of the nuance. There are obviously benefits to a lot of plant products, but let’s be reasonable and scientific, not dogmatic.

    4. Great response, filled with solid points. Yeah, in retrospect I wish I would have “stood up for humans” more on Barnard’s claim that we’re crummy predators. Despite our shortcomings, our abilities to hunt in packs, run for extremely long distance at not-bad speeds, and use tools which massively magnify our comparatively weak musculatures make us… dare I say, fairly bad-ass. The more I read about human evolutionary history the more I want to geek out on the subject, which makes me think (fair warning!) I may sneak in future episodes to the podcast that are a little off-topic for smart drugs, but squarely on-topic for human brain development. :)

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