Heart Disease: A Vegetarian Perspective

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Vegetarianism is an ancient cuisine that, on a dietary level, can significantly contribute to the treatment and prevention of the number one cause of death in the US -- heart disease. Diet is a major cause of chronic heart disease, obesity and diabetes in the US and therefore has to take on a role as part of the solution to prevent cure the disease. And yes, genetics does factor in with many people being genetically hard wired for certain diseases such as heart disease. While vegetarianism supports many causes from global warming and religious sects to animal rights, my focus here is on preventative health care and heart disease.

Vegetarianism is a dietary component of body ecology. The traditional acceptance or rejection of vegetarianism is similar to partisan politics. Both sides take their intellectual or emotional positions and rarely explore or seek a centrist position to the truth of the matter. A simple study of basic human physiology and nutrition affirms a prominent, not exclusive place in humanities diet for vegetarian cuisine. We function best on a high complex carbohydrate, high fiber, low fat and low protein diet when we biologically mature. Of course, that is relative to our lifestyle and biological individuality (biogenetics). As omnivores, like chimpanzees and bears, animal foods are not essential but an acceptable food group to a balanced diet. It is interesting to note that herbivores live twice as long as carnivores if they can escape the carnivores jaws. And when a carnivore indulges in a herbivore, they go for the internal organs and intestines of which the latter are loaded with fiber. And fiber is what brushes some of the cholesterol though our intestines preventing it from being absorbed into our bloodstream. High fiber does contribute to a balanced diet and while it doesn't prevent heart disease, it does contribute to it's prevention.

In Science Daily, dated July 3, 2009, the ADA updated its position on vegetarianism:

The American Dietetic Association released an updated position paper on vegetarian diets that concludes such diets if well-planned are healthful and nutritious for adults, infants, children and adolescents and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

The major concern for those contemplating a diet of vegetarian cuisine for health reasons is protein. The primary reason for concern is they don't understand their body's need for and sources of protein. Protein is used to build body mass, not as fuel. It can be converted to fuel which takes more energy. Hence, it is used for losing weight. It is also used to stabilize blood sugar and why going on a high protein diet, one feels more energy because they are not on a hypoglycemic roller coaster with their blood sugar. As an example of our protein needs, a man 51+ years old needs 5-1/2 ounces of meat protein per day which is equivalent to 2-1/2 ounces of nuts or seeds*. Another reason meat is lower in protein is high in water and may have water pumped into it with stabilizers such as Carrageenan to increase its weight. It is a common practice and if the label says "water added," now you know why. It is easy for vegetarians to meet their daily protein requirements on a vegetarian diet. I am 33 years a vegan vegetarian and in excellent health at age 61.

As omnivores vegetarian cuisine is an essential part of a balanced human diet. Meat is high protein, generally high fat, no carbohydrates and contains no dietary fiber (the exact opposite of a balanced diet for humans). And it is the fiber in the plant based foods, as stated, that brush the cholesterol from our intestines preventing it from absorption into our bloodstream and contributing to heart disease. As omnivores, our bodies were designed to ingest and digest small amounts of meat as part of a balance diet. One need not become a vegetarian to enjoy the benefits of vegetarian cuisine but we do need to cut back on meat consumption and animal bi-products and replace them with whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Thirty-five percent of Americans are now, as part of a healthy diet, enjoying vegetarian cuisine three to four times a week. Heart disease is now the number one cause of death in the US and directly related to high cholesterol animal based proteins/bi-products and in some cases genetic hard wiring from our parents who probably consumed excessive amounts of high cholesterol animal foods which contributed to their genetic makeup. As omnivores, we can thrive without meat in our diet but we cannot attain optimal health without wide variety of plant based foods. We don't need to forgo meat but we must embrace vegetarian cuisine as part of a heart healthy diet.

According the American Heart Association (AHA) Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US having overtaken cancer and expected to hold that position through 2020. Forty-nine percent of Americans have high cholesterol and 1/3 (80 million) have some form of cardiovascular disease. With 80% of US health care dollars being spent on 20% of Americans and given the near epidemic level of heart disease in the US, a vegan (dairy and egg free) or lacto oval vegetarian diet using egg whites and low or no fat milk is the dietary component for helping reverse heart disease. Vegetarianism isn't a panacea solution to heart disease. As stated by the ADA, it needs to be balanced.

Dr. Henry Bieler, M.D., in his book Food Is Your Best Medicine practiced the use of food to primarily prevent and in some cases cure disease. It was the first book I read on my dietary transformation and it set me off on the right path to prevent those health crises my parents experienced. Carl Linnaeus (1701-1778) wrote "To live by medicine is to live horribly." The iatrogenic diseases created by medication can sometimes be worse than the cure. While a person with a serious heart condition may need to take medication for immediate remedial relief, their best medicine for the reversal of the disease and quality of life is food and for heart disease vegetarian cuisine.

And any dietary endeavor to resolve heart disease has to marry the disciplines of human nutrition and culinary technique with the pleasure of the plate (great tasting cuisine). No human being will sacrifice taste for nutrition with any degree of sustainability. Vegetarian cuisine of the 60's and 70's and the low fat diet of the 90's proved that point. Taste is what enticed American's to engage in excessive consumption of unhealthy foods and it is taste that will bring them back to a healthy balanced diet. It is the herbs, spices, wines, vegetables and fruits that enhance the flavor of meat and give the entrée character. Vegetarianism is subbing in vegetarian proteins such as beans, tofu, seeds, nuts, tempeh and meat analogues for animal proteins. Vegetarian cuisine of the 60's has emerged and risen to the sophistication and expectation of American consumers. Now we should embrace it to resolve the number one cause of death in America since it is the heart healthy cuisine of choice.

February is national Heart Month in the US and a good time to make a dietary resolution to minimally go vegetarian for one meal a week for your health's sake. Albert Einstein stated that "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet..."