Recently someone close to me developed the symptoms of coronary artery disease. Just shy of 50 years old he underwent a 5-way bypass but since then has reached an improved level of health he never imagined before. However, the rest of us in the family tree, especially the men, wondered if we had a bad heart gene in the family even though no first or second degree relatives had ever had a heart attack before the age of 70.
Like the members of other families and close friends who experience adverse health events, we became acutely introspective, wondering if we ourselves might be harboring an occult form of this disease.
This new family event motivated me and my wife to double our efforts in reducing even further those risk factors that contribute to premature heart disease especially with respect to our dietary habits. For quite some years now we’ve eaten fairly healthy, almost eliminating red meat, maximizing fruits and veggies, fish and so forth. But I wanted to improve.
As a result I revisited a book I’d read several years ago and we‘ve strengthened our resolve to become, literally, heart-attack proof. The book is Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell (Carl) Esselstyn, a general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Dr. Esselstyn’s story is an interesting one and I’ll leave the details for you to read. But he’s the progeny of a family in which heart attacks and early death (40s and 50s) is prevalent and he himself as a physician was motivated to find a solution to his problem. His father had a heart attack at 43. He wanted to live beyond 50.
He researched and discovered several cultures around the world in which heart disease is absent, learning that it was what they ate, as well as what they didn’t eat, that provided them this protection. He Americanized their dietary regimen and then embarked on a crusade to share this finding and bring his new understanding to fruition.
After a period of being thought a quack, men with advanced heart disease were eventually referred to him, most with a foot in the grave. Integral to his project was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ cardiac catheterization image of each patient all of whom adhered to plant-based nutrition. The results he published were astounding and flipped conventional wisdom on its head!
The conventional wisdom prior to his study was that clogged arteries were irreversibly clogged; that any intervention -- bypassing them, stenting them or ballooning them -- could never re-open them.
Dr. Esselstyn’s catheterization images proved on the contrary that in men whose coronary arteries initially revealed tiny thread-like passages were, after several months on this prudent diet, found to be wide open! And not only did his patients’ crippling symptoms resolve, but their lives in many other aspects improved, not the least of which was stamina, libido, drive, and function -- lives fully lived.
Also, none of these men suffered strokes. According to Dr. Esselstyn this was no surprise since those foods that are friends to the coronary artery would be expected to have the same beneficial biological effect on all arteries. So goes one, so goes the others.
Why and how does a grain/plant-based diet reopen clogged arteries?
Lining every artery are tiny cells called endothelial cells. They constitute the largest organ in the body. If all the endothelial cells in your body were laid out flat they would cover the surface of two tennis courts! When levels of fat are elevated they make the endothelial lining sticky. This allows white blood cells to damage the lining, resulting in “plaques.” These plaques, over time, enlarge to eventually clog an artery. Partly clogged coronaries cause angina, chest pain with exertion; totally clogged arteries, occurring acutely, cause heart attacks. Nitric oxide, produced by certain foods, enhances the endothelial lining and prevents this clogging process, allowing the arterial walls to remain pliant and open.
After learning of this intimate connection, the biological one, between the moment of ingesting a particular food and how it, at that moment, directly affects the lining of my arteries, I developed an acute and ongoing awareness of this existential fact for every time I sit down to eat. I lacked an appreciation of this before. This may and probably will happen to you. And, in my opinion, this is a good thing.
Any food that produces or increases nitric oxide improves the endothelial cell. These would be beans, legumes, beets, broccoli, and greens. There are others.
There are certain foods that block nitric oxide, damaging these endothelial cells. These would be fats, meats, oils of all kinds, dairy, and eggs. There are others.
A plant-based nutrition program can reduce your cholesterol level to below 150 (and the LDL “bad” cholesterol to below 85) which will, according to mortality statistics, make you heart-attack proof. Statistically, anyone who maintains their cholesterol below 150 will die of something else, but not a heart attack. Cholesterol-lowering drugs may be needed to help get below these levels, but the drugs alone are not the answer.
If your family tree includes premature cardiac deaths for any reason, and even if it doesn’t, I would strongly recommend you consider adopting the nutritional program and lifestyle of Dr. Esselstyn. And if, like me, you decide to do so, know there will be days when you will veer from the program, falling off the wagon as we say. Don’t beat yourself up or despair. This is expected. But instead stay the course, taking baby steps, doing something small every day, to continue towards this way of eating. As time goes on you’ll slowly accumulate new habits of eating and your taste buds will eventually become acclimated and fade from the learned and harmful tastes for sugar, salt, and fat.
Dr. Esselstyn’s laborious efforts have put the proof in the pudding. You can become heart-attack proof and in so doing join the revolution and minimize your need for pills, procedures, and operations. Do it!