If you eat the standard western diet that most people eat in the modern world, it's quite likely you will develop heart disease. But there are other options. When it comes to treating heart disease, most doctors promote drugs, expensive, invasive testing, high-tech medical procedures and heart surgery as the standard options. A significant number of research studies have documented that heart disease is easily and almost completely preventable through a diet rich in plant produce and lower in processed foods and animal products.
In a recent CNN interview, Bill Clinton reminded Americans of these other options. When asked about his recent weight loss, he explained that his heart disease had progressed after bypass surgery, requiring his recent additional surgery to place stents. This experience led him to learn about the successes of lifestyle changes at reversing heart disease. He is now following a plant-based diet, similar to those described by Dean Ornish, M.D. and Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D. -- Clinton has cut out all meat (except for occasional fish) and dairy from his diet -- he says that he lives on "beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit." Drs. Ornish and Esselstyn then also appeared on CNN where they explained that removing the foods that cause blood vessel damage and providing the body with copious phytonutrients can facilitate the body's natural healing processes to reverse existing heart disease and restore quality of life.
This was an excellent reminder to Americans that cholesterol-lowering drugs, stents and bypass surgery are not magic bullets to cure heart disease. Some studies suggest that cholesterol-lowering drugs carry serious side effects, and there is no evidence that statin use reduces risk of death in individuals with elevated cholesterol when used as primary prevention. (1-3) Most patients who undergo stent and bypass procedures have not removed the cause of their disease, and so they continue to experience progressive disability and most often die a premature death as a result of their heart disease. (4) Nevertheless, drugs and surgical procedures are still the standard care for treatment of elevated cholesterol and coronary artery disease.
Some studies show that atherosclerotic plaque can be reversed, and cholesterol lowered without drugs or surgery. Making significant dietary and lifestyle changes allow many people who suffer with coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity and/or high blood pressure to reduce or even eliminate their dependence on medications and avoid invasive surgical procedures.
But what is the optimal diet for heart disease prevention and reversal?
Certainly not the small dietary changes recommended by government agencies and other organizations -- these are only modest changes to the average American's diet, and the average American starts developing heart disease during childhood. (5) Unfortunately, these widely voiced recommendations have made many people think by eating reduced-fat, processed foods and replacing red meat with egg whites, fish and chicken, they will be protected. They will not. These changes are simply not rigorous enough to assure predictable reversal.
Low-fat vegetarian diets are a vast improvement. The low-fat, vegetarian diet devised by Dean Ornish, M.D. provided the first hard evidence that heart disease could be reversed -- that atherosclerotic plaques could regress -- with diet and lifestyle changes alone. (6) Similar results were found by Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D. (7)
I propose that a high-nutrient, vegetable-based diet can be even more effective. According to a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, comparing the effects of dietary interventions on LDL cholesterol levels, a low-fat vegetarian diet reduces LDL by 16 percent, but a high-nutrient, vegetable-based diet including daily nuts and seeds reduces LDL cholesterol by 33 percent. (8, 9) This result suggests that if we improve the low-fat, vegetarian diet by making it more nutrient-dense, and include more greens, beans, seeds and nuts we may reverse heart disease even faster, and reduce heart disease risk even more.
What is a high-nutrient, vegetable-based diet? I call this a nutritarian diet, because it is guided by the ratio of micronutrients to calories in foods. 90 percent of calories come from nutrient-rich plant foods: vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Not just vegetarian, nutritarian: vegetable-based and nutrient-dense. We need to take vegetables out of the role of side dish, even in low-fat, vegetarian diets, whose calories are generally derived mainly from grains and other starches. To provide optimal levels of protective micronutrients, a diet must be vegetable-based, not grain-based. Vegetables and beans are far superior to grains and white potato when it comes to nutrient density. Furthermore, low-fat, high carbohydrate diets tend to increase triglyceride levels, a risk factor for heart disease. In contrast, a high-nutrient, vegetable-based diet with beans as the preferred carbohydrate source decreased triglycerides, lower blood glucose and accelerate fat loss. (8, 10)
Not low-fat: include healthy fats from nuts and seeds. Seeds and nuts are indispensable for cardiovascular health. The protective properties of nuts against coronary heart disease were first recognized in the early 1990s, and a strong body of literature has followed, confirming these original findings. (11) In spite of this wealth of data and all of the press on healthy fats, a "low-fat" diet is still viewed in a positive light. Certainly adding fats in the form of oils is fattening and unhealthy, but naturally fat-rich foods like nuts and seeds have profound cardiovascular benefits. Moderate use of nuts also encourages weight loss, not weight gain. (12) By avoiding nuts and seeds you may be missing out on these benefits. A recent meta-analysis of 25 clinical studies that compared a nut-eating group to a control group solidified the LDL-lowering effects of nuts. (13) According to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, nut consumption reduces coronary heart disease risk far more than can be explained by cholesterol lowering alone -- 35 percent reduction in risk for five or more servings of nuts per week. (14)
These additional effects are only beginning to be discovered -- recent data has shed light on the protective properties of almonds and walnuts on vascular health. (15, 16) The Physicians Health Study demonstrated that eating nuts and seeds regularly protects against sudden cardiac death caused by arrhythmia. The data suggests that following a low-fat diet for a long period of time, though effective at reducing atherosclerotic plaque, could actually increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. (17)
I have seen a nutritarian diet produce astounding results in my practice. Hundreds of my patients, readers of my books and members of my website have dropped their cholesterol levels into the favorable range and reversed their existing heart disease -- without drugs -- using high nutrient eating, which places vegetables -- not meat, and not grains -- at the base of our food pyramid.
In this video, Ronnie Valentine tells his remarkable story of using a high-nutrient diet to reverse his heart disease and restore his health. After having quadruple bypass surgery, and then three stents and an angioplasty, he went to the internet for answers and decided to try a nutritarian diet. Ronnie has undergone a remarkable transformation.
The main point is not just the wonderful numbers he earned; it is that even after an angioplasty and with a medicine cabinet full of pills, he could not walk one block because of severe chest pain due to significant atherosclerosis and restenosis. Yet, in less than a year he became free of heart disease; he now runs, plays sports, and has a full, healthy, active life and needs no medications.
With the help of the Nutritional Research Project, I am in the planning stages of a scientific study that will document the extent of atherosclerotic plaque regression on the nutritarain diet.
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15. Jenkins, D.J., et al., Dose response of almonds on coronary heart disease risk factors: blood lipids, oxidized low-density lipoproteins, lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, and pulmonary nitric oxide: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. Circulation, 2002. 106(11): p. 1327-32.
16. Ma, Y., et al., Effects of walnut consumption on endothelial function in type 2 diabetic subjects: a randomized controlled crossover trial. Diabetes Care, 2010. 33(2): p. 227-32.
17. Albert, C.M., et al., Nut consumption and decreased risk of sudden cardiac death in the Physicians' Health Study. Arch Intern Med, 2002. 162(12): p. 1382-7.