The best weapon against heart disease may not be surgical interventions or drugs, but rather something much simpler: changing the way we eat.
Avoiding heart disease through nutrition is the radical yet science-based idea that Dr. Sanjay Gupta addressed in his special, "The Last Heart Attack," which aired last night on CNN. Gupta interviewed a number of pioneering doctors to discuss the idea that conditions like heart disease can be reversed by implementing preventive measures -- namely, changing the way we eat.
"Virtually eliminating heart disease -– it can be done, and truth is, we have known for a very long time how to do it," Gupta wrote on CNN.com. He continued:
I will admit, while I had trained my whole life to treat disease after it developed, I wasn’t medically trained in nutrition to be able to help prevent some of these diseases in the first place. Most of what I have learned has been on my own, since leaving medical school, and I think that is true for many doctors of my generation.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, with more than 600,000 people dying from the disease a year. And each year, nearly 800,000 Americans have their first heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 470,000 of those people will go on to have another heart attack.
"One of the best kept secrets in the country in medicine is that doctors who are practicing aggressive prevention are really seeing heart attacks and strokes disappear from their practices. It's doable," cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of "The South Beach Diet" books, told Gupta during the special.
Pushing the issue more and more into the mainstream is former President Bill Clinton's decision to adopt a plant-based, and then vegan, diet after undergoing a quadruple bypass in 2004 for blocked arteries.
Clinton was advised on the new diet by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., a Director at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center and long-time advocate for pure plant-based eating, and Dr. Dean Ornish, Founder and President of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Medical Editor at The Huffington Post.
Dr. Ornish told ABC News:
Moderate changes weren't enough for him to reverse or prevent heart disease. In our studies we show that [a plant-based diet] could actually reverse the progression of heart disease. Within a month we found that the blood flow to your heart can improve.
Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, Founder and Medical Director of the Santa Monica Wellness Center and Huffington Post Wellness Editor, has been following Dr. Ornish's work for more than a decade.
His research shows that that comprehensive lifestyle changes may play an important role in the reversal of heart disease, she told HuffPost. "While whole foods plant-based nutrition is an important part of his program, Dr. Ornish also emphasizes other important aspects to a healthy lifestyle: exercise, loving relationships and group support, as well as stress management and meditation."
Preventive Medicine Gains Popularity
Former President Clinton isn't the only high-power politician touting the importance of prevention. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has been working to spread the word that good health starts with preventive measures.
Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes are responsible for 75% of the nation's healthcare spending and 7 out every of 10 deaths in America each year. Yet, as you know, they are often preventable. By working together to address tobacco use, poor diet, lack of exercise, and alcohol abuse, we can cut down on the incidence of these conditions.
That's why people have to start making lifestyle changes at home, in order to combat diseases like heart attack and stroke, wrote former U.S. assistant surgeon general Dr. Susan Blumenthal on The Huffington Post earlier this year.
The biggest lifestyle changes a person can make to combat these diseases include quitting smoking, not being obese, being physically active and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, Blumenthal wrote.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a heart-healthy diet is one that is low in saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol. Eating this sort of diet -- high in fruits, veggies and whole grains -- can help to keep weight, blood pressure and cholesterol down and under control, thereby fighting against heart disease.
A plant-based diet has also been shown in past research to help people with diabetes better control their glucose levels. And a 2008 study showed that eating this kind of diet can increase the enzyme telomerase, which lengthens telomeres. Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes that are indicative of our lifespan, so the research shows that eating a plant-based diet could actually alter our genes for a longer life.
UPDATE: The entire special is now available online at http://sanjayguptamd.blogs.cnn.com/.
WATCH: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Interviews Former President Bill Clinton On CNN: