A few weeks ago, I watched a tantalizingly titled CNN special, “The Last Heart Attack.” Dr. Sanjay Gupta visited several doctors known for helping heart patients regain good quality of life and avoid future cardiac episodes. The experts were interspersed with interviews of recovering heart patients, including Bill Clinton. The cheeseburger-loving ex-president is now a born again vegan, thanks to Dr. Dean Ornish.
Perhaps the most compelling physician was Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who pegs heart disease as a “food borne illness,” that can be prevented or reversed by following his strict regimen:
-Eat a vegan diet “nothing with a mother, nothing with a face” and any products from animals, such as dairy products and eggs.
-Cut out all oils, nuts, and processed grains and sugar.
-Take statins if you have high cholesterol.
The concept made me ponder my own heart health, so I ordered Esselstyn’s book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.” It makes a strong argument for following such a hard-core diet, but both the show and the book left me with questions. Lots of them.
The most critical one–how do we know if we have heart disease? It’s a serious question, as sudden death is often the first indication that a person has heart disease. Personally, I’d rather have a little advance warning.
Esselstyn reports that people whose total cholesterol is less than 150 do not have heart attacks. But no mention was made of the effect of the so-called “good” cholesterol, HDL, on heart attack risk. For example, my cholesterol is high, somewhere around 230, but my HDL regularly clocks in at 60, which is also fairly high.
But using cholesterol as the only indicator of forthcoming heart attacks doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. Conflicting studies have shown that very elderly people with very high cholesterol were less likely to die from any cause. (Did I mention that my mother is 97 and healthy?) And some researchers and physicians believe that if your HDL is half as high as your triglycerides, then you’re golden. http://www.healthiertalk.com/i-m-proud-my-high-cholesterol-4235 Others point to the many factors (including genes) that contribute to the development of arterial plaque and lack of flexibility. Dr. Ron Rosedale is one of these. He writes:
The fixation on cholesterol as a major cause of heart disease defies the last 15 years of science and deflects from real causes such as the damage (via glycation) that sugars such as glucose and fructose inflict on tissues, including the lining of arteries, causing chronic inflammation and resultant plaque.
He’s got me there–I definitely have a sweet tooth.
While Dr. Esselstyn convinced me maybe I should take statins, reminding myself of other research brought me back down to earth. After all, I have no other risk factors–I’ve never smoked, my blood pressure is great, weight is good, I exercise religiously, my c-reactive protein levels (they reflect your level of arterial inflammation) are fine, and an artery calcium scan 6 years ago was clean as a whistle.
While statins are very effective at lowering cholesterol and at reducing inflammation, which researchers think may be an even bigger predictor of heart disease, they have some heinous side effects. Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor, and other such drugs can cause liver damage, muscle pain, weakness, and deterioration, nausea, and brain fog (as if we need any help with that). So while I believe Esselstyn is on to something for those who have heart disease, I think I’ll wait for more proof until until I jump on his draconian bandwagon.
That being said, if anything changes, I may be forced to give up red meat, cheese, and my nightly light ice cream. But you can bet I won’t go gentle into Esselstyn’s no-doubt healthy but thoroughly depressing diet or those dastardly statins.