It was the dietary U-turn of the year. Bill Clinton, former US President and former fan of barbecued ribs, announced that he’d embraced a plant-based diet: goodbye meat and dairy, hello beans and almond milk.
Some people who take this route do it for the sake of animal welfare. But Clinton’s motivation was his heart. He’d had a coronary bypass following a heart attack in 2004 and after recurring chest pain earlier this year, had two stents inserted into clogged arteries. His decision to eat an almost vegan diet (he does eat some fish), was inspired partly by US physician Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, a man who recommends avoiding any food that ever had a mother or a face.
“In Norway during World War II, the occupying German army took away much of the people’s livestock – and there was a striking reduction in heart disease and stroke,” says Esselystn, who was in Sydney this month to promote plant-based diets to treat chronic disease. “Heart disease is a food borne illness that shouldn’t exist.”
To anyone used to hearing about heart healthy fats like olive oil, Esselstyn’s hardline approach to fixing arteries damaged by disease comes as a shock. He advocates a fat intake of no more than 10 per cent of the diet, and paring all oils to a minimum. His rationale? Too many fats make it harder for blood vessels to produce the nitric oxide that keeps them healthy.
"Nitric oxide is the guardian of blood vessels – it keeps blood flowing through them, it keeps them dilated and it protects them against inflammation and blockages,” he told me. “But I’ve seen patients with arteries that have been ravaged by heart disease and whose heart bypasses have failed and whose endothelial cells – the cells that produce nitric oxide – can function normally again.”
Tough as this low-fat diet sounds, Esselstyn isn’t the only doctor to have had success with a similar diet. A 1998 study by Dr Dean Ornish, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, found that a 10 per cent fat vegetarian diet, combined with aerobic exercise, not smoking and stress management, helped improve arteries in a group of people with moderate to severe heart disease. It was Ornish’s work that also influenced Clinton’s decision to swap veggie burgers for cheeseburgers.
Still, Esselstyn’s colleague Dr Hans Diehl acknowledges that not everyone who needs a diet makeover will jump at a vegetarian approach – even if a former US president has. Diehl is the man behind the US-based Coronary Health Improvement Project (CHIPS), a community health program that aims to help people change their behaviour. CHIPS is now running in some parts of Australia, and undergoing pilot evaluation by the University of Western Sydney and the University of Queensland. Some CHIPS programs are run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“CHIPS doesn’t exclude animal foods – what we’re trying to do is to get people to move towards diets based on more whole foods with more fibre and less sugar and less salt,” says Diehl, Director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute at California’s Loma Linda University. “This isn’t about dietary dogma, it’s about recognising that change comes gradually in stages. If someone goes from 20 meat meals a week to five meat meals instead then that’s a good move. But if a person has serious heart disease then a vegan diet might be their goal.”
We can only guess at what will be on the Clinton family’s Christmas menu this week, but I can tell you what the Esselstyns will be serving up: sweet potato, beans and mushrooms with gravy - but not a single slice of turkey or ham.
“After all,” says a smiling Esselstyn who won a gold medal for rowing at the 1956 Olympics. “Christmas is no time to celebrate the destruction of your endothelial cells.”
Thank you Cherry, i wish more ppl can read this and change their lives. Its not an easy thing to be a vegan or vegetarian, but slowly and surely a person can choose to change for the better. Its also not a quesdtion of being adventist or not, because we all need healthy bodies. And most people who did research on meat and its products are not even adventists themselves and they are eating healthy foods.
The other thing that can help ppl change is that they should try and find more facts on why the are not supposed to eat meat and its product. And also how our bodies respond to milk produts and meat itself. That includes cheese, ice cream, yhougurt,cakes and so on.