Three Years on a Whole Foods Plant Based Diet – Review of Progress

Just over three years ago, on 1 February 2012, I read a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. , “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”, which has completely changed my health and my life. Many have asked about this experience over the past three years and so this is a summary of my experience to date.

Dr. Esselstyn revealed in his book how he had treated a small number of persons who had advanced cardiovascular disease and for whom no further medical treatments were available and for whom the prognosis was death within a few years at most. In lieu of medical treatments (medications, surgery) Dr. Esselstyn put his patients on a very simple diet: “No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”. Of the original 18 patients, only 12 stayed with the diet. The results for the two groups were remarkable in their contrast. Those who stayed on the diet survived for many years and were healthy in ways that they had not been for years. Those who did not stay on the diet continued in poor health had more cardiovascular incidents and died in a relatively short time.

[Note: This statement of the results is perforce short and lacking details. I refer you to Dr. Esselstyn’s book for a very readable, compelling treatment. Dr. Esselstyn has  extended this work: Dr. Gregor of NutritionFacts.Org gives a short five minute video where he reviews this later work].

I determined, in about 2002, that I had a sensitivity to gluten that was deleterious to my health and so stopped eating gluten — long before the current ‘gluten-free era’ in which such labels and food are prevalent in our grocery stores. To this I was faced with additional dietary constraints:  “No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”. To many this diet,  if not one of complete deprivation or starvation, is at least so draconian as to be completely impossible! And I will admit I was rather amazed by it. What then allowed me to adopt this diet, which I had to piggy-back onto my existing gluten free diet?

I had really two major motivations:

  • On October 6th 2004 I had 2 stents totaling 3.5 cm of length placed in my heart due to a fairly significant blockage in a major heart artery. This is a huge part of that artery in my heart. I immediately felt 20 years younger in terms of stamina. Yet I was told that such stents often collapse and that I would likely require additional surgery and might even die from heart failure in the coming years. Additionally, it was mentioned that these stents dealt with blockage in my heart and that there might be other buildups in other parts of my body. By February 2012 I had been living with this condition for over 7 years.
  • Around 2005 my father asked me to do his tax return for him as he was no longer capable of doing the calculations it required . This was a shock. My father had always been able to do mathematics and he was the one that others went to for help in completing tax returns. This was the first I learned that my father was having mini-strokes which were gradually affecting his capabilities. From then, until my father’s death on January 21, 2011 (just a year before I read Dr. Esselstyn’s book), I watched my father decline as a result of his cardiovascular disease as it progressively weakened his mind and his heart until he was bed-ridden and almost unable to communicate. Perhaps the most distressing part of his decline was watching his awareness of how his vitality was being drained from him.

So, with a personal ‘virtual death sentence’ from my own cardiologist and the experience and threat of a very debilitating decline, I was certainly motivated to do something. That was how I had encountered Dr. Esselstyn’s book, in the first place — looking for information on heart disease. What grabbed my attention in his title was the one, very important word “REVERSE”!

An added motivation for his diet was its simplicity. Only 8 words — actually only 5 words since “NO” figures four times. So the rule was incredibly simple. Fortunately, I had traveled the world and even lived for a while in India, so that I knew that such a diet could be at least endured, and if the promise was a healthy life with a reversal of the cardiovascular disease I knew I could do it. The two lessons in Dr. Esselstyn’s method were:

  1. You must strictly adhere to the diet — no moderation
  2. if you stop the diet, the cardiovascular disease will progress.

As I mentioned, I read Dr. Esselstyn’s book on 1 February 2011 (actually while on a three hour flight arriving about midnight). I started the Esselstyn diet on 2 February 2011, the very next morning. I started eating this way at the beginning of a trip on which I was away from home for 3 weeks. When I returned home, I explained to my wife that I was on this diet but that did not mean I expected her to adopt it. However, she said she was on board with it, which definitely makes food preparation easier in our household. To me it was particularly appealing and easy diet because it only had a four rules  and did not have all sorts of complicated rules related to food types and calorie counting. Generally I could eat as much as I wanted.

Although the principles of the diet are those that I follow, the details have changed over the past three years as a result of experience and additional reading.

One of the first challenges, in our western society, is how to feed oneself on such a diet. Restaurants, food stores, and our advertising media do not easily provide such fare. Fortunately half of Dr. Esselstyn’s book was recipes which one could use.

During the first 18 months or so, using recipes from various sources in books and on the internet, we gradually evolved in what we ate and how we prepared it. For most of this time we adhered to the Esselstyn diet,  “No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”, as closely as we could. As we accumulated this experience we decided we should share it through a recipe section in our Viva*Sparkle website.

Then, about a year and a half ago we came across Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book, “Super Immunity“. Dr. Fuhrman takes the nutrition question a step further. While Dr. Esselstyn advocates a strict whole foods plant based diet with no added oils, Dr. Fuhrman raised the question of “What are the best foods to be eating?” on such a diet. His answer is the simple acronym: “G-BOMBS”. I love this addition to the diet because it is again simple to remember and follow. He recommends that one should be eating:

  • G — greens — particularly dark, cruciferous greens ( broccoli, collards, spinach, etc.)
  • B — beans — a variety of beans and legumes
  • O — onions — including garlic
  • M — mushrooms — a variety
  • B — berries — strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, . . .
  • S — seeds and nuts — including almonds and walnuts

We have incorporated this acronym into our food preparation and most days will have most if not all of these foods in our meals. Although a little more complicated that the four rules of Dr. Esselstyn, it actually gives a bit more direction in ‘what to eat’ as opposed to ‘what not to eat’. The only major difference is that Dr. Fuhrman states it is okay to eat nuts whereas Dr. Esselstyn says to not eat them. When I discussed this with Dr. Esselstyn the major concern on nuts is the oils in them coupled with the fact that many people will take a can of salted nuts and devour it in one sitting. We eat unsalted nuts and I will have four or five walnuts or about eight almonds, about four times a week.

Do I ever violate the diet. Yes, of course. Often if I am in a restaurant I do not succeed in getting a meal that is free of added oil (usually olive oil in a salad or cooking). And, I admit, probably two or three times a year (usually when traveling) I will end up ordering a small order of fries. But, otherwise, I stick to it. It is my life and my health and I want the best.

So, the big question is: “How has it worked out?” Here are the noticeable improvements in my life and health and when I became aware of them:

  1. month 1 — weight loss: The first change that I noticed in my body was weight loss. I was not looking for it and it was not a goal in any sense. In fact, although my waist line had gone from 28 inches at age 20 to pushing 33 -34 inches at age 69, I thought I was quite slim and did not have more than perhaps five pounds to lose. My body is calibrated to one inch on the waist = 5 pounds of weight. I dropped from 145 pounds to 123 pounds and my waist went to 33 – 34 to 28 – 29 inches. When I weighed myself yesterday it was 125 pounds.
  2. month 3 –lower cholesterol: This was a goal. From at least the age of 45 when it was first mentioned to me, my cholesterol had been high — generally in the range of 200 and as high as 220. I tried life style changes but they did not seem to have any effect. I was given statins and they would drop it to about 180 but I could not tolerate the terrible side effects and never took them for more than about a month at a time. Dr. Esselstyn, in his book talks of having a cholesterol of about 150 as being ‘heart attack proof’. My cholesterol is about 150 (with no medications). This had been my main (indeed sole) expectation from going on the diet, so the following, additional results were very pleasant and welcome surprises
  3. month 16 — allergies disappear: This was my first incredible surprise! I have suffered from allergies all my life and as my life progressed the sensitivities became worse and worse. I ‘lived’ on anti-histamines. At about month 16 I realized I was not needing them. And in fact I have not had an anti-histamine since that time. My allergies to dogs and cats are almost completely gone. I still suffer from sensitivities to pollen but not nearly as much as formerly and I just don’t bother with the anti-histamines. Previously a five minute exposure to a long haired dog or cat would likely incapacitate me for the rest of the day; now I don’t usually even feel any effect.
  4. month 20 — language skills reappeared: This was an amazing change. I have generally been very adept at picking up languages. As a teenager I used to converse (with differing levels of skill) in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Ukrainian. I could usually think in French and German and to some extent in Spanish. Usually a few days in a foreign country would have me speaking the language. By the time I was 60 my wife was commenting on how I seemed to have lost this capability. What a surprise when one day I was driving down the road and found myself thinking about things in German! This capability seems to be coming back and is gradually improving. To me this indicates that the arterial channels in my brain are clearing out.
  5. month 24 — I don’t get sick anymore. I used to always be getting ill with colds or flues and more often than I wanted I would end up on antibiotics. This condition improved considerably when I stopped eating gluten about 2002, but I was still getting ill a few times a year. At about month 24 I realized that if I got sick it was usually only for a day or two — in fact, now, it seems that I will realize I have been ill when it occurs to me that I wasn’t ‘quite right’ yesterday. I no longer seem to have those weeks of runny or stuffed up noses, mild fevers and general illness. How great!
  6. month 24 — sense of optimism. At this time, two years into the program I realized that my outlook on life was changing. To put this in context, by the time I was 65 I started to ‘realize’ that my life was effectively ‘over’. I would go into retirement. I would gradually lose my capabilities. I would ‘fade out’ or perhaps have a catastrophic heart attack or stroke. What a change was evident a year ago. All of a sudden, it seemed, I realized that I felt and was thinking like a 20 year old. When I was 20, I looked forward to perhaps 30 productive years and with the optimism of youth felt I would achieve great things. Now, here I was at 71, thinking again that I would have 30 good years ahead of me and there are great things for me to yet achieve!
  7. month 24 — balance improved. This was another welcome surprise. I was on my morning walk one day a year ago when I realized that I had passed something I wanted to take another look at. Without stopping (I walk at a fairly fast military marching pace) I did a complete 360 degree turn to take a glance at the object  and continued on my way. I realized a block later what I had done. I had not stopped, slowly turned around, and then looked and then turned around and continued — something I would have done a few years ago. No, I handled that maneuver like a young person. More recently I have been on ice skates for the first time in at least 25 years. I have complete sense of balance and no fear of falling.
  8. month 36 — corneal arcus disappeared. This was a welcome change. Corneal arcus is an easily observable buildup of fats and cholesterol in the blood vessels surrounding the cornea of the eye. It is observed in people with high cholesterol, by opthamologists and optometrists, without any obtrusive action, during a normal eye examination. Such specialists will normally mention it to their patients because it is a sign that cholesterol buildup is occurring in the blood vessels. I had been advised of it when I was about 45 years old. Just recently I was advised by my optometrist that I no longer had corneal arcus! This is an independent measure of the “REVERSAL” that Dr. Esselstyn described in his work. I have written about this in an earlier blog.

The amazing thing about this story of the improvement of my health is that I am still discovering improvements. I am getting to the stage where I wonder “What next?”.

Will I stick to this diet? YOU BET!

 

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