The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Friday, March 23, 2012

Knocking Back Cholesterol Without Drugs

Have you ever wondered why some people can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, yet never get fat or have issues with cholesterol?  There's one word that solves this riddle...genetics.  Up until a few years ago, I never gave this much thought.  After all, I worked out regularly, watched what I ate, and lived a pretty clean lifestyle.  Why should I worry about cholesterol?  The answer came in the form of a wake-up call.  Make that three wake-up calls.

First, my mother revealed to me that both she and my father had high cholesterol and were put on Lipitor by their doctor.  At first, I found this hard to believe.  Granted, my parents were in their early sixties at the time but they live the cleanest lifestyle of anyone I know.  We're talking about two people who are still within five pounds of their high school bodyweight....forty some odd years later.  Lipitor?  My parents?

It was about this time that I got the second bucket of cold water dumped over my head.  I got my cholesterol checked....189.  Not too bad according to today's standards but my doctor told me that, given my family history, it would continue to go up until I'd eventually need cholesterol lowering drugs.  Now that's something to look forward to.

Not long after this, I got the most startling news of all.  Bob, my new neighbor, had a nearly fatal heart attack at age 37.  Turns out, his cholesterol level was over 500!  According to Bob, his mother's level was just as high.  After a successful bypass, his doctors did what all doctors do nowadays - they put him on a mega dose of cholesterol lowering drugs.  This worked for a while but the side effects were so bad, Bob went back to his doctor and asked for an alternative.  There was no alternative....according to his doctor. 

Bob begged to differ and did a little research of his own.  He came across a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn:  Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.  This book made the bold claim that eating a strict vegan diet which excludes any and all oil (even in the ingredients of food) will not only prevent heart disease but actually reverse it.  In addition, it has a cholesterol lowering effect that rivals (and even beats) many drugs for some individuals.  Bob bought the book and brought it in to his cardiologist....the same guy who told him there were no other alternatives.  To his surprise, the cardiologist spoke highly of Dr Esselstyn and said his claims were essentially true.  So Bob asked the obvious question - why didn't you tell me about this?  The cardiologist calmly replied that "no one can stay on this diet."  And that was that.

Bob wasn't buying it.  He went on the diet and it ultimately had the effect of allowing him to go on a much lower dosage of the drugs.  He can't eliminate them completely, due to his incredibly bad genetic profile for cholesterol, but the dosages are tolerable now....and the side effects have come way down as well. 

Given my family history, I decided to give the Esselstyn diet a whirl.  I didn't just go into this on a whim though, I had blood work done beforehand.  Sure enough......189.  Next, I read the book....fascinating.  Finally, I hit the diet - no more meat, cow's milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, or any foods with even a trace of oil in the ingredients.  What I found was that I was buying most of my food in the organic section at Wegmans.  The grocery list consisted of pasta, rice, Ezekial bread (the only kind without oil), soy milk, soy meat substitutes, and loads of fruits and vegetables.  My stir fry sauce was a mixture of red wine, vinegar, and maple syrup - sounds gross but it's really pretty decent.  Homemade protein bars turned out to be a life saver on this diet as well. 

After seven weeks of this Spartan diet, I went back to my doctor and had the bloodwork taken again.  I opened the mail about a week later to get my results.  I couldn't beleive it - my overall cholesterol had dropped to 140 - almost a 50 point drop!  All my other readings improved in tandem including LDL, HDL, and Triglycerides.  In the meantime, my bodyweight dropped by close to ten pounds....and I wasn't even trying to lose weight.  My energy levels were way up and I never felt more healthy. 

This convinced me, more than ever, that there are natural ways to improve one's health.  The strict vegan diet may not be for everyone but it is, at the very least, an alternative to the typical drug regimen.  Not to mention that this diet can actually reverse heart disease over time, since the lack of oil dries out the arteries.  This drying effect enables the arteries to slowly erode years of plaque buildup into the bloodstream, where it's ultimately eliminated.   Esselstyn demonstrated this in his book with before and after x-rays of his patients' arteries.  No drug on the planet can make that claim.

My experiment is over now but my eating habits will never be the same.  My diet is cleaner than ever before and I still stay away from meat and dairy.  I'm not following the strict Vegan diet per se, but I know I can do it again in the future if need be.  The best part is, I don't fear my genetics anymore.  I have options now - regardless of what the medical establishment might think.