“Coronary artery disease is nothing more than a toothless tiger that need never exist. And if it does exist, it need never progress,” Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., said as he paced the stage of the Ambridge Event Center today. The slim, elegant doctor was in Portland today to speak at the “Enhancing Health with Plant-Based Nutrition” professional conference. Although his was the final talk of the day, he energized the crowd of 200 healthcare workers, who hung on his words.
Esselstyn has been associated with the Cleveland Clinic since 1968, during which time he has served as president of staff and sat on the board of governors. He has won both a gold medal – for rowing on an Olympic team in 1956 – and a Bronze Star – for his service as an army surgeon in Vietnam. Esselstyn currently directs the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Today the doctor spoke about protecting the endothelium, the layer of cells that lines the arteries. He described the importance of nitric oxide, a gas that keeps your blood flowing smoothly and prevents stiff arteries and high blood pressure. Through his decades of research, he’s identified a list of foods that interfere with a healthy endothelium. He’s worked with hundreds of patients to reverse the kind of heart health issues many doctors would not believe could be reversed.
It all began with his 1985 study where he instructed coronary heart disease patients to avoid oil, fish, fowl, meat, dairy and caffeinated coffee. The results were extremely positive. He refined the diet and grew very hard line about dos and don’ts. Unlike many proponents of vegan diets, he is anti-oil and anti-nut. Several times he surprised the audience with a proclamation of, “No oil!”
Sugar, too, made it onto his bad list, including agave, fruit juice and honey. Whole fruit is okay, he said, as the fructose is bound to fiber, which slows the absorption rate.
Esselstyn is a big proponent of nitrite-containing leafy greens, which promote nitric oxide in the endothelium. His leading choices are arugula, chard, kale, spinach, beets, beet greens and bok choy. “I want patients to eat leafy greens six times a day,” he said, recommending greens at every meal, including breakfast. “And I adore it when you have an evening snack of kale.” Esselstyn himself has followed a vegan diet for more than 26 years.
His approach to heart disease is much safer than medications or surgery. “Nobody has ever gone to the emergency room with an overdose of green leafy vegetables,” he said.
A plant-based intervention makes good financial sense for the country. According to Esselstyn, about 45 percent of Medicare is spent on cardiology. Our tax dollars go into paying for people to have multiple stents and multiple bypasses, he said, until they can’t have any more. Then they die. “From a food-borne illness,” he said, shaking his head.
After guiding 500 patients through this radical shift in diet, Esselstyn is passionate about the change that is possible. “It is totally a mistaken belief to sell patients short that they won’t make this lifestyle change,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely unconscionable to not at least mention this option to patients.”
The audience agreed, judging from the standing ovation they gave Esselstyn.