This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, 30 Jan. 2024: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-784241
I wrote in part 1 about my heart attack experience and the role exercise played in keeping my cardiac event relatively small. Now it’s time to address what is the single biggest cause of cardiovascular disease and, at the same time, can cut your risk of heart disease by 90%. What you eat can reverse heart disease in some cases. It’s been put to the test, and it’s been proven!
Food—we can’t live without it, but can we live with it?
Most of you grew up like I did eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). An abundance of animal proteins like meat and chicken were daily fare. The 1970’s saw the explosion of processed food on the market and the convenience that came with it.
My fast food craze
Yes, I ate that too. As I got older and went away to college, it got worse. I loved eating fast food, whether burgers and fries, pizza, or a good pastrami sandwich, it was all too frequent. The beverage of choice was Coke-a-Cola. I did try to include fruits and vegetables in the diet, but that wasn’t going to offset what I was eating most of the time.
After getting married, we certainly were eating a little more at home. By this time, I was a full-time musician in NY. So, weddings, bar mitzvahs, dinners, and any event had big smorgasbord. As a musician, I quickly learned how to eat a lot of food on a 5-minute break. During the day, I sometimes came home for lunch… but many times grabbing a slice or 2 of pizza or a steak sandwich happened instead. I often ordered a tossed salad with whatever I ate but that wasn’t going to undo the damage. And I continued guzzling sodas. Shabbat really exacerbated the situation with the meaty cholent, chopped liver and unhealthy desserts.
The main cause of heart disease
What’s the leading cause? It’s the food we eat.
What if we eat like people in the Blue Zones? People in these areas live very long and productive lives. There, the mainstay of the diet is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lots of legumes, and some nuts and seeds. Occasionally, they include meat or fish, but it’s in incredibly small amounts—almost like a condiment. Processed foods aren’t there—not a candy bar, Dorito, or a potato chip to be found. In those areas of the world, heart disease and diabetes are hard to find.
Learning from good role models
We need to learn from the eating habits in the Blue Zones. Two cardiologists did just that.
Independent studies by Dr.Dean Ornish and by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn found that eating in this manner will absolutely prevent and even reverse heart disease. Any of the new breed of preventive cardiologists practicing lifestyle medicine (Drs. Ornish, Esselstyn, Batiste, Williams, Agarwal, Montgomery, Ostfeld, Freidman and the many more) will tell you – IT IS A FOOD BORNE ILLNESS!
Heart disease is 90% preventable. Although food isn’t the only factor, it’s the biggest one. Dr. Agarwal has said that 9 out of 10 people that come to her having been told they need a stent end up not getting one. Why? to a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based (WFPB) diet for reversing heart disease.
Back to me
So, here I am. For the last 6 years, I have been a 90-95% WFPB eater. I’ve tried hard, in spite of the HCM (enlarged heart muscle) we spoke about in Part 1, to exercise. I try to get my steps in and get aerobic exercise with moderate to brisk walking. And then this happened.
We need to put this in context. The first 33 years of my life I was a pretty terrible eater. As I started to exercise and deal with high blood pressure, my diet improved. It was better, but not what it needed to be. I still ate pizza, occasional meat, way too much chicken and loved cheesy things in general. I just figured I could cheat more and exercise it away. That doesn’t work!
6 years ago I took a big step up to WFPB eating. The milk products went out the door. I still had a small piece of chicken during Shabbat dinner and a small piece of fish Shabbat day. Gradually, the amount of oils in my diets became less and less. I ate some healthy, fatty foods like nuts and avocado. My weight dropped and my blood pressure dropped as well, and I really felt better. But because of the amount of plaque buildup I had already accumulated, I would have had to be 100% perfect to really reverse the disease.
There is no question that y change in eating was a huge factor in slowing down the progress of my heart disease. The invasive cardiologist who successfully stented my right coronary artery feels the left one has been blocked for more than 5 years, and possibly as much as 10. Unfortunately, my efforts with changing my diet were simply too little-too late.
It is very important to remember that heart disease doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a progressive disease that takes decades to manifest itself. Most who grow up in the West already have fatty streaks in their coronary arteries in their teens.
Just like the exercising, everything I did enact with my change to WFPB eating, contributed greatly to having an end result much better than it could have been. I am now following Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Ornish’s way of eating to reverse heart disease. The coronary artery that was opened up? I’m not going to let it get blocked again and with G-d’s help, my lifestyle changes are going to help prevent any deterioration in other arteries and hopefully even do some reversal.
In the last article, I urged everyone to start and gradually increase their exercise. Even more critical, is to change your eating. If you need help with that transition, that is exactly what my clinic specializes in. If not, you can buy Dr. Esselstyn’s book or Dr. Ornish’s book on how to reverse heart disease. But do it.
People don’t usually like it when I say this however, everyone needs to hear this; if you eat a Western diet, you are more likely to get some Western disease at some time. Now is the time to change your eating habits.
In part 3 we will talk about my experience with hospitals and doctors. They are an important part of my recovery and healing. Our medical system together with lifestyle can work very well together to “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”.