By Thomas Larson, Special to Everyday Health
After my third heart attack in five years, I became a vegan, or a plant-based eater. Then I wrote about it in my book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, which tells the journey of my having gone from a non-recovery recovery to healing after those near-fatal trials,which finally forced me to change my diet.
I was already a vegetarian, a “right” eater — or so I thought. That earlier journey began thirty years ago, while reading Francis Moore Lappe’s ground-breaking book Diet for a Small Planet. I was shaken to the core by the scale of factory farming and clear-cutting of Central American rain forests by McDonalds and other fast-food corporations.
Back then, like tens of thousands of my fellow climate-conscious, meat-is-murder, animal-sparing Californians (I wish I could say Americans), I renounced all sides of beef, bird, and goat. But not their edible byproducts — those tasty commodities like chicken eggs, whole milk, Swiss cheese, vanilla yogurt, and deep-dish pizza.
Yes, I ate right for the sake of the animal’s corporeal life but not for the sake of the planet’s: animal waste is the number one source of methane, scourge of global-warming. I was also not eating right for the sake of my arteries.
But by becoming vegan, I underwent a metamorphosis. I gave up every quarter of the cow for one simple–albeit less-than-obvious–reason: dairy is the devil.
How do I know?
Consider how my traumas and treatments unraveled.
Heart attack #1 — angioplasty, three stents, and a statin drug save me.
Heart attack #2 — angioplasty, one stent, increased exercise, more drugs and higher dosessave me.
Heart attack #3 — angioplasty, two stents, more drugs . . . save — no. Stop! Why do my arteries keep occluding? Why do I keep getting saved but not getting better?
I renewed my study. I found books and a couple movies on plant diets for heart patients. I consulted two lipidologists who ordered detailed blood panels and targeted with supplements the bad strains of cholesterol that continually clogged me.
And, finally, I learned this truth: my arteries inflame at those passageways where lipid deposits jelly-up as vulnerable plaque, that is, plaque likely to burst and block — because of two things. First is my dairy-rich diet and my inability (not that I’d ever really tried) to quit eating eggs and cheese. Second is the spongy cast of my arteries. These are gene-bred from my father, which for him, my older brother, and me guaranteed that we Larsons accrue sludgy pustules of cholesterol in our coronaries, just as Tim Russert and James Gandolfini did (to name two spectacular falls). Thereby, we were more susceptible to cardiac arrest (a.k.a., sudden death) than most Americans.
So, could it be any clearer that the only thing left for me to do, in addition to interventional treatment, exercise, and drugs, was to give up dairy and eat plants? No animal protein. Just plants. Which I did.
What do plants offer?
- No cholesterol and no casein, artery-closers extraordinaire
- Easily assimilated nitrous oxide, key to arterial self-repair
- Plenty of protein that’s nutritionally more beneficial than protein from animals
- Soluble fiber for bowel regularity
- A stomach-pleasing ban on hard-to-metabolize fat
- Enhanced sexual potency in males and females
- Less end-of-life disability
- Prevention of some cancers
I did ride a rough road from veggie to vegan. In addition to their initial canyon-ledge terror, my heart attacks were confusingly mild and harsh. Mild because each attack, for which I rushed myself to the nearest hospital (it’s smarter to call 911), was less grave than the preceding one, which made me think I was getting better. The statin drug, post-number-one, helped defuse the severity as well. Harsh because the infarctions came three times — carpet-bagging relatives who wouldn’t leave — which meant I was not getting better and my healing regimen was not rooting out the cause. This further said that at the rate I was going, I was never going to improve.
However, I did improve — but only after I discovered that what went in my mouth made me sick and kept me sick. I improved, dramatically, after I cut out the cow.
A plant-based diet is a friend with many benefits — I rarely have angina or other chest pains. I dropped thirty-five pounds; I don’t count calories; I don’t diet. I seldom suffer heartburn, so I don’t think it’s masked angina (I used to). I can drink red wine; my LDL is super low (46) as is my total cholesterol (106) and my arteries are less inflamed than they were. My sex life has been reborn with a fit, desirous partner. And while I do have the occasional fatigue-ridden day, it’s probably my old plaques, packed in during my dairy days, still seeping into, and gumming up, my stented coronaries.
I’ll trade that last misfortune for all the other post-vegan advantages.