Periodically, I write about health and wellness. The heart, I believe, is our core organ. When it beats with strength and vitality, we're physically capable of giving our best to loved ones.
The following piece (originally published on Mind Body Green) was inspired by my father. Twenty years ago, he suffered a massive heart attack. Because every challenge provides an opportunity for growth, my entire family changed our diet and lifestyle. Feel free to share this message with a loved one who may also suffer from heart disease.
This article was first published on Mind Body Green:
Twenty years ago, my father had a massive heart attack. While sitting in the hospital with my mother, awaiting news of his condition, I overheard “Code Blue” on the intercom system. My father had plunged into cardiopulmonary arrest and was on the verge of death. A priest came to counsel us.
At 22, I was faced with the real possibility of losing my father. I was beyond terrified.
Thankfully, the medical team stabilized my father. His cardiac surgeon performed a quadruple by-pass to restore blood flow to his heart. Over the next few months, my father slowly recuperated. While the medical team did an amazing job of treating his heart disease, they failed to have a single conversation on how to prevent a future recurrence. Instead, they cautioned that his by-pass would have a lifespan of 7-10 years.
My family frantically searched for information to prolong and improve his quality of life, including joining a local support group sponsored by the American Heart Association. At our first (and only) meeting, they served a dinner of fried chicken, potato salad, and chocolate cake--not exactly healthy fare for those at-risk of arterial blockages.
I combed the public library and stumbled upon a book that changed my life: Dr. Dean Ornish’s “Program for Reversing Heart Disease.” Dr. Ornish espoused that heart disease was not only treatable, but reversible. By switching to a whole food, plant-based diet very low in fat (10% of calories), patients were able to virtually eliminate chest pain, significantly reduce their reliance on medication and lessen the risk of a heart-related surgery.
Overnight, my family revamped our lifestyle, removing meat, poultry and substantially all cholesterol-laden oils. Over years, further changes evolved, including the elimination of eggs, dairy and most processed foods. Now, our plates are piled with unlimited quantities of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.
My father’s bypass is now going on twice its predicted life-span. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Dr. Ornish and the other health-care practitioners (including my hero Dr. T. Colin Campbell) who speak about the importance of diet in preventing modern-day diseases, including diabetes and cancer. These practitioners are fighting an uphill battle, as the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical industry have a vested interest in keeping us sick. Prevention, after all, is cheap. The real money lies in selling surgeries, pills and medical interventions.
At 42, I feel healthy and vibrant, which I attribute fully to my plant-based lifestyle. I enjoy:
1. A healthy body free of disease and medication.
With a predisposing family history of both heart disease and cancer, I am diligent about annual check-ups. My cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugar levels always test in the normal range. Further, I take no medication of any kind. I rarely get sick and gone are the days of upset stomachs.
2. Controlled weight without dieting.
I love cooking and eat substantial meals throughout the day. I enjoy a variety of unrefined carbohydrates and cook a variety of ethnic dishes, including Indian, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern cuisines. I am never hungry and rarely watch my caloric intake.
3. A lifestyle in line with my moral values.
My partner is a veterinarian who owns an animal hospital in Brooklyn. Together, we share a deep love, respect and empathy for animals. While health reasons—not politics—initially motivated me to give up meat, I can no longer eat animals in good conscience. Read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and you’ll learn of the horrors of the modern day industrial farm. Nourish my body with sick, antibiotic- and hormone-laden animals raised in inhumane conditions? No thanks.
4. A cost-advantageous way to feed my household.
By subsisting heavily on seasonal and locally-sourced fruits and vegetables (and forgoing processed foods and meat), I save substantially on my weekly grocery bill. I prefer to shop organic, but it is often cost- prohibitive. So, I use the Environmental Working Group’s list of the most pesticide-laden foods to help make informed (and financially-savvy) purchasing decisions. (See: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/)
5. Boundless energy and a clear mind.
My partner is an avid biker. While he used to enjoy barbecuing ribs, chicken and steak on a nightly basis, he has been eating black bean tacos, butternut squash risotto and minestrone soup since living with me. He now refuses to eat meat, extolling the virtues of a meat-free diet. He has much more energy and stamina for biking. He rarely feels tired or sluggish. We almost never feel “brain fog.”
I encourage you to take small steps if you’re considering forgoing meat. Enjoy a “Meatless Monday.” Eat vegetarian until dinner. Enjoy an almond milk and fruit smoothie for breakfast. Slow down and take notice of how you feel. Before long, the results will speak for themselves and keep you motivated on your journey.