A 79-year-old man who was suffering from severe heart disease was told by his doctor that the next step in his treatment was to undergo coronary artery bypass and aortic valve replacement surgery. This option seemed extreme and risky. Before taking surgical measures, he decided to start by changing his diet.

Eat plant-based foods like Kale to prevent and even reverse heart disease

He joined the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Health Systems and adopted a whole-food plant-based diet, which consisted of vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, and legumes. He cut out all dairy products, eggs, meat, and started exercising.

At the start of the wellness program his symptoms were so bad that he was unable to walk more than a few blocks without stopping to rest and he was taking several medications.

Two months later and 18 pounds lighter, the plant-based diet seemed to be having a positive effect. His overall cholesterol levels had lowered without using supplements, his blood pressure had improved, and he was now walking two miles without complaint.

With each doctor visit his medications lessened in strength and frequency, as he continued his plant-based diet and physical activity. His heart failure symptoms were improving without surgical intervention! He was now back to enjoying his hobbies like gardening and beekeeping.

This man’s story is one of many examples that shows the powerful correlation between diet and heart disease. In fact, decades of research has shown that we can avoid heart disease altogether just by making healthy lifestyle choices.

A Lack of Education is Costing Lives

In a society with complicated diseases, fad diets, and new health claims being made every day, it is no wonder that we are struggling to beat the heart disease epidemic in the United States.

Campaigns for awareness and research suggest a “healthy diet” that is low in fat – claims that have lead the public into purchasing “low fat” products and switching to vegetable oils.

Unfortunately many products that claim “low-fat” on their packaging are filled with added sugar to improve taste. And vegetable oils, although seemingly healthier – are still pure fat, as they have been stripped away from their whole plant form.

Instead of looking at the research and educating the public, the focus has only been shifted to target a single factor of diet – fat. It is important to look at the whole picture because our bodies digest food as a whole, and what we digest directly affects our health.

Finland in the 1970’s is a good example – they were the heart disease capital of the world. Health officials knew that the answer was to educate the public about healthy lifestyle choices. What did they suggest? Eat a diet high in vegetable consumption, lower your intake of animal foods (meat, dairy, eggs), stay away from saturated fats, and stop smoking.

Over the next 30 years Finland watched as their national heart disease rate dropped by 80 percent. It was that simple.

In the United States coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women, killing 610,000 people every year – that is 1 of every 4 deaths. Nearly 1.2 million stent procedures, and 500,000 bypass surgeries are performed every year. Those two procedures alone cause 27,000 deaths, with mortality rates of 1 and 3 percent respectively.

heart disease can be prevented with a plant based diet
Photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer

Sadly, our health professionals are rarely educated of the benefits that come with eating a whole-food plant-based diet, and our communities are not taught the simple message that keeps people the healthiest (and lowers the cost of medical bills).

Instead we continue to eat meat, dairy, and eggs, that claim to be the best source of calcium or protein, when the research is showing that our bodies are not built to ingest these animal products. Although they do contain calcium and protein, they are also full of harmful bacteria that keep our body from absorbing the nutrients they are claiming to be full of in the first place.

Decades of marketing campaigns by large corporations have convinced us that we need milk for strong bones, we need meat and eggs for protein, and white meat and fish are “health foods”. The fact is, the studies done to prove these messages have often been funded by the food corporations who are trying to make a profit.

Thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of these backward messages, and the truth about health is becoming more available. It is time to take health education into our own hands so that we can take better care of ourselves and our families.

Is a plant-based diet effective in avoiding heart disease?

Yes!

In a 2014 study, 198 patients with significant coronary artery disease (CAD) were placed on a whole-food plant-based diet. 96% of these people had experienced cardiac surgery or heart attack. Four years later, a follow up exam showed 94% of participants who followed the diet had not experienced any major cardiac event (heart attack, stroke, death), and angina had improved of resolved in 93%. 21 people in the study did not follow the diet, and of that group 13 people (62%) experienced an adverse cardiac event.

What happens to the heart when we ingest animal products?

Lining our arteries is a single cell layer called the endothelium. This layer produces nitric oxide, a gas that plays a huge role in healthy artery function and blood flow. First, nitric oxide helps the blood flow smoothly. Second, it is a vasodilator – meaning is expands your arteries to increase blood flow (and ultimately oxygen flow) during physical activity. Third, it serves to keep the wall of the artery from becoming inflamed, and prevents hypertension. Most importantly – it keeps out blockages and plaque.

The inner lining of the artery

When you eat animal products, oils, or refined/processed foods your body reacts to process the fat, and to combat the other substances that animal foods contain. Carnitine from meat, choline from eggs both cause elevated toxin levels in the blood called TMAO. Meat and milk both contain an inflammatory molecule Neu5Gc. Under this oxidative stress, endothelial cells become damaged. Once the cells are damaged they cannot produce enough nitric oxide for healthy blood flow and artery function.

The blood becomes sticky and cholesterol makes its way beneath the layer of endothelial cells, creating inflammatory enzymes, plaque builds up and when the inflammation gets bad enough, the thin layer of cells breaks open and plaque gets into your blood stream.

The good news is whole, plant-based foods have the OPPOSITE EFFECT!

What happens to the heart when when eat whole, plant foods?

Whole, plant foods are loaded with phytochemicals that are not present in animal products. These phytochemicals include protective substances that neutralize oxidative stress, reduce inflammation and enhance the health of the endothelium, reducing the uptake of cholesterol into the artery wall and the development of coronary artery disease. Nitrate containing green leafy vegetables provide the substrate for nitric oxide production.

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn shares a story about a fellow surgeon, colleague and friend, who had a heart attack at age 44. Seemingly fit and healthy, his arteries were damaged so badly that he was not a candidate for surgical intervention. Dr. Esselstyn, in the early stages of researching the effects of a plant-based diet on heart disease, suggested to that his friend try adopting the diet. Without other options, the surgeon switched to a whole-food plant-based diet, and the results where shocking.

3 years later, a follow up angiogram showed the man’s arteries had completely restored their health and function. Without the risks associated with medications and heart surgery!

Watch Dr. Esselstyn’s TED talk below to hear the whole story!

Where do we start?

The research and real life examples are certainly compelling. We can avoid and even reverse heart disease simply by what we eat! Perhaps you or someone you love has experienced heart problems. What if we took the example of the 79-year-old man, and asked our doctors about a whole-food, plant-based diet regime before we consider heavy medications and surgical intervention?

Lets start by educating ourselves. Learn everything you can about the benefits of a plant-based diet, and the risks of the Western diet filled with animal products and oil.

    Learn how to make plant-based versions of your favorite meals.

    Learn how to batch cook and meal prep for easy healthy options!

    Watch these inspiring documentaries!

    Load up on nutritional resources like books and DVD’s!

    Watch research based videos at NutritionFacts.org

    Get inspired by stories of real people.

    Find support in your family, church, community, workplace, online!

    Fill your fridge and pantry with healthy, whole, plant foods and throw away the poisonous foods: meat, dairy, eggs, oils.

    Eat as much vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes as you want!

    Check out what Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn has to say about Heart Disease & Diet

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