How Plants Healed Me

Without a doubt, we live in a period of explosive medical innovation and discovery.  It seems we are constantly bombarded with the results of one health study refuting the results of a previous study on the very same topic.  The opinions, findings, social norms and directives of those we trust can be deafening and overwhelming.  The ensuing confusion can make managing your well-being a challenge.  A year ago, I took up my own personal challenge and embarked on a journey to alter my diet to transform my health.

My Background

I was born with two minor heart defects which require regular monitoring by a cardiologist.  In high school, I discovered I had poor cholesterol following my first blood screening.  Tens of millions in this country have high cholesterol but combining it with my heart issues was particularly concerning.  I spent much of my twenties on a statin aimed at improving my cholesterol numbers.  The pharmaceutical worked but I also spent much of that time learning about our country’s health care system and its addiction to legal pharmaceuticals.  In this world where there is a pill to cure all that ails, I wanted to find a “better way”.

I did not rely solely on the statin as I have always been active.  For the past 13 years, I’ve been an avid long distance runner, as well as playing sports and working out.  As a result, I naively decided that I could compensate for skipping the statin by simply increasing my running mileage and cadence.

My Experiment

The results of my new workout plan would be revealed in July 2011 with a blood test during a visit to the cardiologist.  While my approach was focused on exercise, my wife was exploring a radical “new” approach to eating.  In my mind, the concept of a plant-based - more commonly known as “vegan” - diet was best suited exclusively for uninformed granola hippies.  My wife’s perspective was much more pragmatic; her open mind led her to well-respected sources such as Dr. T. Colin Campbell and The China Study.

A few days before the appointment, she had a suggestion.  If the blood test did not show any improvement in my cholesterol, would I consider a plant-based diet as a solution?  I figured it couldn’t hurt.  If anything, this may be the opportunity to prove through irrefutable results that plant-based eating was indeed bogus!

After the cardiologist shared my unimpressive blood results, I inquired whether he knew of any non-pharmaceutical solutions to my problem.  Ironically, he said the only way to dramatically impact the numbers was a vegan diet.  I couldn’t believe what I just heard - my cardiologist had just recommended my wife’s course of action.

So it was decided…I would spend the next 90 days consuming only products derived from plants.  That meant no meat, no chicken, no fish, no milk, no cheese… zero animals and none of their byproducts.  After 90 days as a vegan, I would retest my blood chemistry and regroup with my cardiologist.

Typical Day

I needed a plan and, luckily, I happen to be married to a woman who, at this point, was already working to obtain her Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University.  For the purposes of this experiment, it was like being married to Google.  With her help, I figured out a daily breakfast routine.  Unfortunately, my job requires a great deal of restaurant lunches.  I quickly learned these could be managed through advanced planning and creative ordering.  Most importantly, I had daily confidence that I would come home to a wonderfully prepared plant-based dinner. Here is a sampling of a typical day…

Breakfast - Frozen Blueberries, Banana, Spinach, Flax Seed, Almonds, Sunwarrior Classic Chocolate Protein Powder and Almond Milk Smoothie

Morning Snack - Handful of Raw Almonds and Cashews

Lunch - Vegetable Pizza on Whole Wheat Crust without cheese

Afternoon Snack - Dried Fruit

Dinner - Quinoa/Beans/Avocado and Heirloom Tomato/Fresh Mint Salad

Dessert - Frozen Banana dipped in Raw Peanut Butter/Dark Chocolate

The Results

My anticipation for the results of the experiment grew as I approached my 90-day follow-up visit.  I noticed my weight loss (which was not purposeful) and generally felt good for a father of two kids under the age of four.

The results were surprising…I was able to decrease my LDL cholesterol by over 17% in 90 days!  The overall results were actually more impressive than those I experienced with prescription pharmaceuticals.  As usual, my wife was right and I officially became a believer!  My original 90-day experiment transformed into a year-long journey that culminated in July 2012 with my LDL to HDL ratio improving by 22%.

I had already been witness to how a plant-based diet affects my cardiovascular health but my gut told me that there are side effects to everything.  I met and discussed my concerns with my supportive internist who suggested we do a full blood panel to address the unease six months through the experiment.   

The actual results were much more comprehensive than those above but everything was normal…even my B12, which is only found abundantly in animal products.  The supplement I had been taking was being properly absorbed.

What’s Next?

All I have to do is walk through a grocery store to remember how dramatically my life and lifestyle have changed.  As I walk through each aisle, my four-year-old points out every item I am not able to eat because, of course, “Daddy, you are vegan.”

I recognize new findings may be released next week that challenge the China Study or Bill Clinton may announce he is once again eating animal products, but I can only trust what I have experienced for myself and the numbers do not lie.  It is impossible to forecast what the future will bring but, for now, I am proud to call myself plant-based and eager to influence others.

WellnessJay David