“Heart disease is a food borne illness,” says Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., physician and director of the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. He is also author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, the book which caught the attention of former President Bill Clinton and changed the once famed fast food junkie into a self-professed “mostly plant-based” eater.
Esselstyn spoke at the NASA Aerospace Medicine Grand Rounds earlier this year presenting the results of 26 years of clinical research on heart disease. (View the entire video here.)
The number one killer of Americans is an illness that doesn’t even need to exist, Esselstyn says. He points out that heart disease is virtually nonexistent in rural China, Central Africa, among the Papua Highlanders of New Guinea and the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, all of whom consume a plant-based diet. Yet today, autopsies of young American accident victims, age 17 to 34, already show evidence of early coronary artery disease. “If everyone has the disease by 18 or 20 who has been eating a western diet, then this is not genes or stress.”
The prevention and cure is switching to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, while avoiding oil, fish, fowl, meat and dairy, he says. While some accuse his dietary approach of being extreme, Esselstyn counters, “I can argue some other things we do may be extreme.” He cites the number of deaths, heart attacks and strokes that occur each year resulting from intervention procedures such as stents and bypass surgeries. Over a 10-year period the number of deaths during stent procedures can approximate 270,000, along with 480,000 heart attacks; and during bypass surgery an approximate 15,000 deaths and 30,000 strokes.
He has demonstrated repeatedly that when you show patients the cause of their heart disease and you convince them that they have the capacity to stop this disease, most patients will make the change. “Patients are empowered by the knowledge that they are in control of the disease that was destroying their lives. It’s the greatest gift you can give someone who has had a heart attack – nobody fears anything more than another heart attack.”
Esselstyn began his clinical research in 1984 and continues to follow up on the more than 200 patients he has counseled in the intervening years, all with similar results. The first group he worked with in 1985 consisted of 23 men and one woman each of whom had severe triple vessel coronary artery disease. Their ages ranged from 44-68; the average cholesterol was 237.
Under his care they received detailed counseling on the cause of the disease (the western diet rich in animal products, oils and processed foods) and how to implement a low-fat, whole foods plant-based diet.
Six of the original 23 patients proved non-compliant, dropping out of the program within the first eight months, though Esselstyn continued to check in on them from time to time. Over the next 12 years, those six noncompliant patients reported 13 new cardiac events: two died of heart attacks, four experienced increased angina, and four required bypass surgery.
The remaining 18 compliant patients went on to lose an average of 25 pounds, and at their five year follow up exam their cholesterol averaged 177; and after 12 years, a low 142. Eight years prior to the program start, the group had recorded 49 cardiac events, in the 12 years following participation in Esselstyn program there were no cardiac events recorded in 17 of them. “But one little sheep wandered from the flock,” Esselstyn reports. “He got into the glazed donuts and steaks. The angina came back, and he had another bypass. Now he’s back with the flock. He does nothing but further proves the point.”
Besides the exposure afforded by Clinton’s revelation on CNN, there have been bits and pieces reported in various news media. CNN recently visited his clinic in Cleveland, and this May a full length movie, Forks Over Knives, featuring himself and T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional scientist and author of The China Study, will debut in theaters across the nation. (Forks Over Knives will debut May 13 at the Edwards Greenway Palace 24 (Regal), 3839 Weslayan in Houston.) The film, which features real patients with chronic conditions from heart disease to diabetes, chronicles the challenges and triumphs as the patients adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Esselstyn is optimistic that once the message gets out that people will change their dietary habits. “If you were to compare where we were back in 1984 to now – there’s light years of difference. Many people are having their eyes open to this. You can’t underestimate the public—look at seatbelts and smoking,” he adds.