“Nutrition is the real key to saving your life long-term.”
– Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, MD
Through the aegis of the Forks Over Knives documentary, I became acquainted with Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn and his work at the Cleveland Clinic. It was only natural that I check out his book from the library and read it cover-to-cover.
As a conscientious medical practitioner, Dr. Esselstyn was concerned about the prevalence of heart disease in this country. While Americans represent 5% of the world population, we account for ~50% of the heart procedures. His family history and the implications for his own health heightened his interest. With a nod toward the groundbreaking work of Dr. Dean Ornish and others, Dr. Esselstyn set about the business of curing the underlying disease rather than simply treating it with invasive surgeries and pharmaceuticals.
The work began with a group of 18 heart patients who were so sick that they were no longer candidates for further medical procedures or drugs. With a grim prognosis, they had nothing to lose by using diet as their primary treatment protocol. The rules were simple: no meat, no dairy, no oils or nuts, and minimal salt and sweeteners. To their collective amazement and joy, the treatment worked! The progression of each patient’s disease either halted or reversed, and they began to enjoy “normal” lives. Twelve years later, they were all still alive!
Dr. Esselstyn has leveraged this treatment protocol successfully with many more patients. His New York Times best-selling book – Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease – discusses his work and the science behind it. A few key facts caught my attention:
- Elevated blood serum cholesterol has been linked to heart disease. The body already produces as much cholesterol as it needs. When we ingest fat, we stimulate our bodies to produce excess cholesterol. The cholesterol we consume in animal products adds to our own production.
- A single meal containing fat and animal products can thwart the endothelium’s ability to produce nitric oxide. The endothelium lines the heart’s vascular system. Nitric oxide relaxes the blood vessels, prevents white blood cells and platelets from becoming sticky, and keeps the smooth muscle cells from accumulating plaque.
- By following Dr. Esselstyn’s whole food plant based diet, we can lower total cholesterol below 150 mg/dL and the LDL to less than 80 mg/dL. At these levels, we should not deposit fat and cholesterol into our coronary arteries.
- By lowering the risk of heart disease, we also lower the risk of stroke.
As word spread about the benefits of a whole foods plant based diet, folks hungered for recipes to help them explore this brave new world. Dr. Esselstyn’s wife and daughter obliged with the 2014 publication of The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook. My husband and I have just started working our way through it. The food is quite tasty once you get the hang of preparing it. I can honestly say that I don’t miss eating meat, and I lost my craving for fat within the 10-12 weeks of our dietary transition. I DO miss dairy – notably ice cream and really good cheese – but I’m (mostly) able to forego that indulgence based on an awareness of its impact on my body.
Critics claim that Dr. Esselstyn’s findings are not supported by a large enough sample size, and that factors other than diet and nutrition influence coronary health. The latest research seems to suggest that SUGAR is the principal actor in coronary artery disease, and that eating the right kinds of fats does a body and brain good.
I watched my father struggle with this disease during the final years of his life and suffer a painful death. I also took note of the astronomical costs of treatment – open heart surgery, carotid artery surgery, and a gaggle of medications. While I’m grateful for the technology that gave us many good years after his initial diagnosis, I can’t help but wish that he’d crossed paths with Dr. Esselstyn. I would love to have seen him in better health during his final years and, perhaps, enjoy his 1000 watt smile a little while longer.