Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in this country for men and women, according to Center of Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics System. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year, which means one in four deaths are because of heart disease. The CDC says on its website that early action is key to preventing death from heart disease, but do people know what action to take?
I grew up knowing that too much salt and saturated fat was bad for you, but I didn’t understand the specific reasons. I never knew how much salt was “too much” or what portion sizes were “too big.” My parents taught me to never waste food, but what happens when a restaurant places a ton of food in front of you? You paid for it; you should eat it all, right?
I had so many questions, so, I decided to start my own research. I wanted to be healthy inside and out — not just to lose weight, but to live longer and not have to worry about having a heart attack at an early age. My mother has heart problems, and I grew up watching her take pill after pill to keep her heart working properly. Was a pill the only solution?
According to Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., a former surgeon, researcher and clinician at the Cleveland Clinic, Americans spend millions of dollars each year focusing only on the symptoms of heart disease instead of the underlying causes. In his book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” Esselstyn challenges conventional cardiology by posing a revolutionary idea — that we can, in fact, abolish the heart disease epidemic by changing our diets. The proof is in the results of a study where he advised 17 advanced coronary-disease patients, who were told they had less than a year to live, to follow a strict plant-based, oil-free diet. Within months their chest pain eased, their cholesterol levels dropped significantly and they experienced improvement in blood flow to the heart. Twenty years later, they remained free of symptoms.
“Plant-based, oil-free nutrition can not only prevent and stop the progression of heart disease, but also reverse its effects,” Esselstyn wrote in his book. “It can eliminate the need for expensive and invasive surgical intervention … no matter how far the disease has progressed.”
I was astonished when I read these results. I was taught that meat and dairy products were essential to good nutrition. Could this medical doctor really tell people to eliminate the foods that we’ve all grown up to love? But the results of his study were too compelling, and his resume supported its legitimacy. Esselstyn was a researcher and clinician for 35 years at the Cleveland Clinic, which provides clinical and hospital care and is a leader in research, education and health information. He was a member of the board of governors and served as the president of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons in 1991. He also was awarded the Bronze Star as an Army surgeon in Vietnam.
“I believe that we in the medical profession have taken the wrong course,” Esselstyn wrote. “It is as if we were simply standing by, watching millions of people march over a cliff, and then intervening in a desperate, last-minute attempt to save them once they have fallen over the edge.”
He believes that doctors should be teaching people how to avoid the chasm entirely without harsh medications and costly mechanical techniques.
These techniques and treatments “do nothing at all to cure the underlying disease or to prevent its development in other potential victims,” he wrote. His solution is the plant-based, oil-free diet.
The rules of his program, in the 20-year study, stated that his patients couldn’t eat meat, poultry or fish. They couldn’t eat dairy products or consume oil of any kind. Nuts and avocados were eliminated as well.
“The bottom line of the nutritional program I recommend is that it contains not a single item of any food known to cause or promote the development of vascular disease,” he wrote.
He compares his patients’ heart disease to a house fire. Their house is on fire because eating the wrong foods has given them heart disease.
“You are spraying gasoline on the fire by continuing to eat the very same foods that caused the disease in the first place,” he explained. “Stopping the gasoline puts out the fire.”
For me, my “house isn’t on fire,” yet. My plan is to start paying attention to what I eat early, before it becomes a problem. I don’t strictly follow Esselstyn’s recommendations because it is difficult, but I understand now that health is directly tied to diet. Awareness is the first step to a longer life and a healthy heart. I encourage people to take their first steps and seize control of their heart health.