By September 18, 2011

The “Heart Attack Proof” Diet

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is the author or the book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” a seminal work that promotes an entirely plant-based diet that he believes will not only “make you immune to heart attacks” but is also the best way to lose weight and reduce your risk of a host of illnesses, regardless of your family history. The diet has held up under a long-term clinical study, though it is still considered controversial by some doctors and health organizations.

Although radical in its claims and structure, the diet holds up to scrutiny.

The “heart attack proof” diet hinges on the belief that heart disease is a food-borne illness existing almost exclusively in Western cultures. In societies where meat, oils, and processed foods are rarely, if ever, eaten, heart disease is virtually nonexistant. Because so, Dr. Esselstyn advocates switching to a completely vegan diet. His dietary guidelines for preventing and reversing heart disease are:

1. No meat, poultry, or fish.
2. No eggs or dairy products.
3. No oils of any kind.
4. No nuts or avocados.

The diet does allow leafy green, root, and colorful vegetables, as well as any form of legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), whole grains and whole grain products, and all types of fruit.

Although radical in its claims and structure, the diet holds up to scrutiny. A twelve year study by Dr. Esselstyn brought together over a dozen patients with severe heart disease, all of which had already undergone at least one surgical procedure to correct the disease, such as bypasses and angioplasties. Some had prognoses of less than a year to live. After less than a year on the diet, compliant patients showed a drop in cholesterol levels and angina symptops. After five years, average cholesterol levels in the group had dropped from approximately 246 mg/dL to 137 mg/dL (in cultures where heart disease is rare, the average cholesterol level is around 150 mg/dL). Angiograms done on the patients also showed a widening of the coronary arteries, which allows for better blood flow and less risk of developing blood clots.

The diet is believed to prevent the development of a host of other illnesses besides heart disease and heart attacks, among them stroke, osteoporosis, male impotence, adult onset diabetes, mental impairment such as senility and dementia, and cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, and ovaries. A fringe benefit is that the diet is considered one of the most healthy ways to lose weight, which also aids in the prevention of heart disease and diabetes.

The heart attack proof diet is not without its drawbacks, however, the primary issue being that it involves a very radical change in eating habits. In a culture where meat and other animal products are served at almost every meal, switching to veganism demands a radical, and possibly expensive, change. Without proper guidance and good resources, adherents to the diet may lapse into old eating habits or continue bad ones, such as overeating and high sugar intake, that negates the positive effects of the diet.

Many doctors — and the American Heart Association — do not recommend the diet because it focuses on only one aspect of preventing and treating heart disease. While dietary changes are important, heart disease can strike individuals due to tobacco use, a sedentary lifestyle, or family history, regardless of diet. Managing all aspects that contribute to the disease is important. Regardless, the diet can be effective when properly followed, and, in the words of Dr. Esselstyn, it means never again having to count calories.