According to this cardiologist, a plant-based diet is a key ingredient to a healthy heart.
By Lisa Cesarano
“Let medicine be thy food, and let food be thy medicine,” counseled Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, back in 400 BC, when physicians relied heavily on dietary methods to prevent and cure disease.
For Martin Cohen, MD, an Interventional Cardiologist and Electrophysiologist at Westchester Medical Center (WMC), the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), this ancient wisdom remains true to this day. But he also believes the healing power of food has become increasingly obscured by the modern lifesaving medical advances we take for granted.
“When it comes to heart health, we spend a lot of time talking about technology and medication and equipment, but we don’t spend nearly enough time discussing what we eat,” Dr. Cohen says.
While the debate continues in medical and wellness circles, regarding which diet may promote optimal health, Dr. Cohen advocates exploring the scientifically substantiated health benefits of a plant-based diet. More restrictive than vegetarianism, plant-based eating avoids meat, fish, eggs and dairy products.
Plant-based diet approaches, more popularly known as veganism, are currently enjoying a global wave of popularity. But aside from the cultural, ethical and environmental benefits that many vegans advocate, Dr. Cohen notes that the benefits of plant-based eating have been shown in numerous scientific studies to have a positive impact on cardiovascular and overall health.
One of the most famous pieces of research on plant-based eating began in the 1970s, when the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University and the University of Oxford launched The China Project. The research examined mortality rates from cancer and other chronic diseases among inhabitants of 65 counties in rural China. The study concluded that among those who consumed a high-fiber, high-vegetable diet, coronary disease was found to be virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, obesity, hypertension and adult-onset diabetes, as well as cancers of the breast, colon and stomach, were also rarely encountered in the vegan group, compared with the study’s carnivorous counterparts.
Beyond the seminal work of The China Project, subsequent studies have further borne out the benefits of a plant-based diet as an effective therapy for heart disease, particularly when surgical interventions may be contraindicated.
In the early 1990s, physician, researcher and author Dean Ornish conducted a randomized, controlled trial that showed even severe heart disease could be reversed by a plant-based approach to eating. His system, “The Ornish Program,” was demonstrated to improve cardiac function among subjects after only 30 days.
Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic, also published long-term nutritional research in the 1990s that demonstrated the benefits of a plant-based diet “in arresting and reversing coronary artery disease in severely ill patients.”
“Most of us Americans need to take control of our diets,” advises Dr. Cohen with regard to the first line of defense against heart disease. While veganism may be an unattainable or even an undesirable goal for many, he encourages experimenting with it in ways that don’t interfere with one’s lifestyle. “Plant-based eating four days a week is still better than not doing it at all,” says Dr. Cohen.
Food for Thought
• Steer clear of red meat. There’s plenty of high-quality vegetarian protein sources, such as lentils, chickpeas and quinoa.
• Increase your vegetable intake while gradually cutting back on non-plant-based foods.
• Combine plant-based eating with other healthy lifestyle modifications, like walking at least 30 minutes a day. “One thing I always say to patients is that the secret to a long life is weight control and taking a daily walk.”
• Seek out community support. Find a group or a “diet buddy,” to encourage and help keep each other on track.