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British study, U.S. doctor think strict diet stops heart disease

Published April 20. 2013 09:02AM

Imagine being told by your cardiologist that there's nothing more he can do for you. That your heart disease is beyond hope. That you should settle your estate, write your will, make peace with your maker.

Because within a year there's no way you'll be alive.

Now imagine being told by another doctor that there's a diet that can undo your heart damage. That if you follow it, you won't die. Would you eat the way he suggests?

Foolish question, isn't it?

While I'm not certain that this was the actual scenario, I do know the "other" doctor Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., made that claim more than 20 years ago, and he didn't lie. He put 20 people so gravely afflicted by heart disease other doctors gave them no more than a year to live on a diet he believed reversed heart disease.

And 20 years later, when he published a book about it in 2007, they were all with us and all able to read it, and showing none of their former symptoms.

Certainly a nice selling point for a diet book, isn't it?

But even though it became a bestseller, the diet book never created the buzz that giving life to 20 goners should. Esselstyn now feels it's because his simple solution to stopping heart disease upset the medical apple cart.

In a piece for Huffington, Esselstyn, along with T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., writes that doctors and nurses "are handsomely rewarded for administrating drugs and employing technical expertise," that the American Dietetic Association "is controlled by food corporations," and that the pharmaceutical industry "pockets billions from chronic illnesses."

Eradicating the existence of heart disease, something one out of every two men and one out of every three women will in some way encounter, through such a simple measure as diet saves thousands of livesbut imperils the medical cash cow. Suddenly, there'd be little need for expensive drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and six-figure hospital stays featuring angioplasties and bypass surgeries to unclog arteries. Moreover, health insurance companies could no longer charger such high rates.

But today's column will is not designed to be an economic rant. Instead, it will show that Esselstyn's dietary belief has support in new research and offer an explanation why more people don't eat his way.

While Esselstyn's diet is effective, it's also austere. It doesn't permit meat of any kind, dairy products, or oils. In essence, it's even more restrictive than even the strictest form of vegetarianism, veganism.

That's why a new study from the University of Oxford in England can be seen as proof that Esselstyn is really on to something.

In this study, the diets of 45,000 volunteers were studied for at least 10 years, about 15,000 of whom were vegetarians.

At the conclusion, 1235 cases of heart disease had occurred. After the researchers considered other factors such as age, smoking, alcohol intake, and physical activity, they concluded that the decision by those 15,000 not to eat meat and fish reduced their chance of heart disease by 32 percent.

Dr. Francesca Crowe, the lead author of the study, believes the lower incidence results from the lower levels of blood cholesterol and blood pressure that are associated with a vegetarian diet.

Since Esselstyn's diet is even more restrictive (it forbids oil of any kind, even olive oil), it should lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels even more. In fact, it just might do what Esselstyn claims in his lectures across the country: eliminate a disease that need not exist.

So why aren't more people eating this way?

In a recent interview with Julie Deardorff and published by Tribune Newspapers, Esselstyn sheds some light. He feels, doctors aren't behind it.

Esselstyn says that it's "almost anathema" for doctors to think that food is more powerful than drugs or medical procedures. Furthermore, few of them even have a "clue" about why he feels his diet works: because the foods he advocates help the endothelial cells produce nitric oxide, the substance that keeps the flow through the blood vessels moving like "Teflon" rather than "Velcro."

In other words, nitric oxide also keeps the blood vessels flexible enough that plaque does not accrue and blockages do not occur.

Another stumbling block are the foods that Esselstyn touts.

When asked by Deardorff to name some of the things you can eat on his diet, Esselstyn named bok choy, Swiss chard, kale, collards, collard greens, beet greens, Napa cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cilantro, parsley, spinach, arugula, and asparagus.

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