FOR MY HEART: A Personal Perspective on Eating a Plant-Based Diet
by Larry K. Fried
As someone who has eaten a plant-based (vegan) diet for nearly 18 years, I have often been asked, “Why?” Over the years, I have struggled to answer this question in a way that is brief, yet fully encapsulates the myriad of reasons I choose to eat a diet free of animal products. Only in very recent years have I settled on, “I do it for my heart.” In all the heart represents, I mean this physically, emotionally and spiritually. This response often succeeds in opening the inquiry to unpack the three main elements that underlay my food choices – personal health, compassionate living and environmental responsibility.
Healthy Whole Foods
While, I made the switch to a vegan diet in 1995, it was not a sudden and dramatic switch, but part of a long dietary journey that had begun nearly 20 years prior, during my first years of college. Back then I was eating a typical Standard American Diet (SAD) rich in refined and junk foods, meats and dairy products. As I was a student depending on food stamps, my food choices had another factor – inexpensive. A whole box of Kraft’s Mac & Cheese was a common complete dinner. Alternately many meals included Chuck Roast as a main course, which was about the cheapest cut of beef, and could last me a week. I was continuing the diet I had adopted as a child, but with less money.
Somewhere along the line, I noticed something I’d never noticed before. Each time I ate the roast, I felt considerable sluggishness and was unable to concentrate on my studies. As far as I remember, I had no outside influences, no prompting, I knew no vegetarians. As an experiment I decided to try cutting way back on red meat and see if it made a difference. It did. The journey led me to a local natural food store, where I delved into the undiscovered country of whole foods. I soon cut out all red meats in my diet and continued to feel better for it. After a move to the Northwest a few years later I dropped poultry, leaving fish as the only flesh I consumed for years going forward. Along the way I was reading and learning about the known health benefits of a whole foods diet, and my junk food habits (Ding Dongs were a favorite for years) eroded away as I became a much more conscious eater.
In my journey I have waded through an often confusing and sometimes contradictory array of nutritional and dietary information, some of it with solid research behind it, much of it industry driven marketing info with little or no supportive evidence. I am now much better at discerning the wisdom from the hype. In very recent years I have witnessed a very solid consensus emerge in the nutritional science community that eating more whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables will reduce the risk of all the big killer degenerative diseases in our society including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. But there are those who go further, and say it is even possible to all but eliminate most of these diseases by eating a low fat whole foods vegan diet.
Among the pioneering clinicians who take this view is Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. As outlined in his 2007 book, Dr. Esselstyn conducted a small but very determinative study with some very seriously ill heart patients at the Cleveland Clinic. The study began in the mid-80s. He put all of the patients on a whole foods low-fat plant-based diet, and also prescribed low doses of statins. His objective was to get every one of them to reach and maintain a total cholesterol level below 150. He then followed their progress initially for 5 years, meeting with them every 2 weeks. A few of the patients dropped out of the study, but for those who stayed with it, every one succeeded in arresting the progression of their heart disease, and a majority of them showed highly significant progress in reversing the disease, as illustrated by MRI scans that showed previously collapsed arteries opening up and healing.
Former President Bill Clinton credits Dr. Esselstyn’ s work in playing a major role in his decision to adapt a low fat plant-based diet in 2011, in an effort to “live to be a grandfather.” During his presidency Clinton was famous for his jogging to McDonald’s, and had the paunch to show for it. In 2004, Clinton had a quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery, which at the time was credited by his physician as preventing a major heart attack. But, Clinton’s heart disease continued to progress, and in early 2010 he had surgery to insert two stents placed in one of his previously treated arteries. When Clinton understood that the stents would not prevent future heart attacks, he began to read the medical literature and discovered that following a low-fat whole foods plant based diet was the only proven way to reverse heart disease. Within a few months of adopting his diet made up of whole grains, vegetable, fruits and beans, Clinton lost 24 pounds, and became much healthier. Eventually he reached 185 pounds, a weight he hadn’t been since he was 13. Other celebrities, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Sharpton, credit Clinton in making their own switch to vegan diets.
Dr. Esselstyn, who once shared an office at the Cleveland Clinic with the heart surgeon who pioneered bypass surgery, believes that cardiac disease, the number one killer in our society, is completely avoidable with the right diet.
One of our world’s leading and most respected nutrition scientists is T. Colin Campbell. Campbell quite agrees with Esselstyn, and in some ways goes further expanding his conclusions to a whole range of degenerative diseases. In his ground breaking book, The China Study (2005), Campbell concluded that we can greatly reduce our risk of contracting all kinds of degenerative diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes through good nutrition alone. Backed by the most extensive study ever conducted studying the relationship between health and nutrition, and bolstered by many years of additional studies, Campbell says the key is a whole foods plant-based diet. This conclusion comes from a man who grew up on a dairy farm, and devoted his early professional life to getting more animal protein to the hungry of the world.
Many other medical and scientific authorities have come around to similar conclusions, including Dr. Dean Ornish, whose life style program to treat and reverse heart disease is the first integrative medicine program to be covered by Medicare; Dr. John McDougall, who runs a similar life style program; and Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and President of Physicians for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which has conducted many studies and meta-studies around health and food. Like the others mentioned, Barnard has authored a number of books, including one that focuses on preventing and reversing diabetes, which has reached epidemic proportions even among our children; and his most recent book, Power Foods for the Brain (2013), which addresses preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
To date, my own assessment is that the evidence is overwhelming that a low fat whole foods plant based diet is a very healthy way to eat, the healthiest yet identified. Whether such a diet is optimal including very small amounts of certain animal products, as Ornish prescribes; or completely devoid of all animal products, as Esselstyn, Campbell, McDougall, Barnard, and many others advocate, remains uncertain since no long term comparative studies of large groups of people who eat these very similar, but distinct diets, yet exists. It is for reasons beyond those of personal health that make the strictly vegetarian diet my heart’s optimal choice.
It Shows I Care
Early on in my food education journey, I picked up a book called Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe. This book was a radicalizing force in the way I view my food choices. The book shatters the myths about world hunger and identifies the real causes, which have nothing to do with either scarcity or population. In fact, Lappe had discovered in 1969 that more than 3,000 daily calories a day were being agriculturally produced in grain alone for every person on the planet, enough calories to make most quite chubby. This was exclusive of all legumes, vegetables and fruits, and we still have a similar production rate of grain today. Among the true causes of hunger Lappe identifies are that most of the grain grown was going to feed livestock, converting grain to meat is very inefficient, and the poorest could not afford to buy meat. She also said that US foreign aid was exacerbating, not alleviating world hunger. Lappe advocated eating lower on the food chain (i.e.: relying on plant-based foods) and returning land to the control of small farmers worldwide, so they could grow the food needed for themselves and their local communities. Lappe also made it clear that sufficient protein could be obtained easily from plant foods, and in fact this is what most of the world’s people do.
Lappe’s seminal book opened my mind to notice other injustices in our food system, chief among them the increasing reliance on concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), and the unimaginably brutal and inhumane conditions that such factory farm animals live and die under.
Unlike many who come from an animal rights perspective, I am not someone who is convinced that humans killing other animals for food is immoral, at least not when it is necessary to do so. However, I do believe in the sanctity and right to dignity of all life, and have no greater goal than to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain, suffering and violence on another being, no matter the species.
In this way, I don’t see a difference between our family’s Australian Shepard, Milo, and the nameless pig raised in factory farm under conditions that most people find too horrid to contemplate. Both animals are emotional, intelligent, and sentient beings that are fully capable of experiencing both compassion and cruelty, both pleasure and pain. Milo’s life is full of love and joy and physical activity and as little pain as we can manage for him. The pig’s life is likely to be completely devoid of anything even resembling joy. Rather, the pig’s lot is a brief and tortuous six months of life confined in a stacked cage too small for the pig to even turn around. While Milo is treated as a member of our family, the pig is treated as a market commodity to be turned into inexpensive pork chops and bacon. And the pig is not alone. It is estimated that 10 billion animals in the US (2009 figure) are killed each year for food, nearly all of them from factory farms. Such a system of creating food is a system I find abhorrent on many levels, and I simply do not want to contribute to such suffering. I am not sure why anyone would knowingly do so.
Of course there are still alternative sources of meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, where the animals are raised on usually small farms and ranches, eat a natural diet, such as pasture grass for cattle, and spend no time in CAFOs. I encourage those who choose to include some animal products in their diet (which admittedly still includes the vast majority of us, including my wife) to obtain these products sourced entirely from animals raised in these more traditional and humane ways. Fish products should be sourced from wild and sustainable runs – not farm-raised fish. Examples of local sources of these animal products can be found in this directory.
It’s Good for the Planet
Nearly my entire adult life I have been passionate about environmental issues. This passion stems from a deep, even spiritual connection I feel with the natural world and the realization that what I love most is under grave threat. So, when I read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America (1987) in the early nineties, I was particularly taken with how he illuminated the link between the growth of meat and dairy consumption and increasing environmental degradation. Robbins is the nephew and son of the founders of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, and was in line to become President of the company. As a young man, he walked away from that inheritance and on his own journey. That journey has lead him to become one of the most salient critics of the meat and dairy industries and the havoc they are wreaking on our health, on the lives of billions of animals, and to this last point, the environment.
From Robbins I learned that dependence on a meat-based diet was arguably the single greatest contributor to the ecological crisis we face. Destruction of rain forests for grazing or growing livestock crops, tremendous pollution of water from concentrations of animal waste in CAFOs, large use of fossil fuels for growing livestock feed crops, erosion of vast amounts of American grazing lands, and the inefficient use of diminishing fresh water resources (up to 2,500 gallons per pound of beef produced), are just a few of the facts he brought to light. From Robbins I also learned that dairy cows and egg producing chickens’ factory farm lives are similar to animals raised for meat, and that in fact they are eventually slaughtered at a premature age when their milk or egg production drop off.
Robbins communicated a simple and empowering message. Each of us makes a decision three times a day to contribute to the problem or the solution. Choosing whole plant-based foods contributes to the solution and diminishes suffering.
Since Robbins’ first book, the connection between animal agriculture and environmental degradation has been widely documented and publicized by both government and non-governmental agencies (NGOs), such as the UN and World Watch Institute. In the last few years livestock production has been identified as a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Arguably the largest contributor (as high as 51% of all carbon dioxide equivalents) according to some researchers, while others think the contribution much smaller, falling somewhere below energy production and transportation as the primary contributors. Regardless of who is right, I believe eating a plant-based diet is unquestionably in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and something I can do every day.
As a result of the response to his first book, Robbins founded the non-profit EarthSave, which was all about empowering people to make food choices that were healthy for them and the planet. The logo consists of a place setting with a plate decorated with the Earth at center, and the slogan “Healthy People Healthy Planet.” I joined my local chapter (Seattle at the time), and eventually served a couple of years on the EarthSave National Board of Directors. During that time, I met not only Robbins, but worked with former cattle rancher turned vegan, Howard Lyman (aka The Mad Cowboy, 1998), who replaced Robbins when he stepped down as President of EarthSave; and a number of other prominent leaders and thinkers in what Robbins calls “The Food Revolution.” They have all made a lasting impression on me, but so have the many less prominent vegans I’ve met along the way, hundreds of them. Some had moving stories of arresting and reversing debilitating and life-threatening illnesses; others were healthy life long vegans, a few were athletes concerned with sustained performance, and some made the switch as an ethical choice - standing for compassionate action and animal rights.
So, when asked why I am vegan, I could say all I’ve said here and much more; or I could just say, “For my heart.”
Larry K. Fried is the publisher/editor of Natural Choice Directory and loves to eat.