Heart Doctors Tout Vegetarian Diets

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Heart Doctors Tout Vegetarian Diets

By Joe Mahoney, The Suncoast News

This is why Katz is jazzed about the notion of patients potentially reversing their heart disease through diet. He has applied to the American Heart Association for a grant to conduct a local study to measure the effects of diet and exercise on heart disease.

Here, it seems, is a surefire business-losing proposition:

A cardiac surgeon learns firsthand how to stop and even reverse heart disease and starts proselytizing about it, thus potentially reducing the number of patients needing to have him open their chests for repairs.

I mean, who wouldn't want to avoid being sliced open?

Meet Dr. Marc R. Katz, who would be glad to see a slowdown in the number of people requiring heart bypasses and other procedures. Katz has lost 35 pounds and lowered his cholesterol by a third in the past year adhering to a seriously low-fat diet and could be a poster boy for February's American Heart Month. But he's not convinced a lot of his patients or Americans in general are motivated to follow him.

"It's hard to get people to do this," said Katz, chief medical officer of the Bon Secours Heart & Vascular Institute, in Richmond, Va. "It's amazing, people will take a pill, but if you tell them they can actually do better in some ways by changing their lifestyle and their diet, they just say, 'Aw, I could never do that.' "

Katz, 54, began his personal mission after last year's Super Bowl, which he watched while eating a bowl of chili. The next day, he pushed himself away from the table of meat, cheese and fat of just about any kind. He significantly changed his diet to a vegan one — he eats nothing that comes from anything with a face — favoring instead bok choy and lasagna with tofu and pizzas made on pita bread with sauce and veggies.

He was inspired by the research and books of Drs. Dean Ornish, T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. — and, closer to home, by the lead of his friend Dr. David G. Hughes, a cardiologist, who heard Esselstyn speak at a conference in December 2008 and shared his conversion with Katz.

After hearing Esselstyn, a general surgeon who conducted some pretty convincing studies involving a plant-based, oil-free diet and the arresting and reversal of coronary artery disease in long-term patients, Hughes went out and ate a lunch following those guidelines. Then he ate a similar dinner.

"I just sort of did it meal-by-meal for a couple of weeks, and I lost four pounds without trying to lose weight, and I felt better," said Hughes, 61, who practices primarily at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center. "The longer it went, the better I felt."

In little more than a year, Hughes has lost 20 pounds and is back to wearing the same pants size he wore as a college undergrad. He also cut eight minutes off his half-marathon time, so it's not like he's hurting for energy.

Cardiovascular diseases are America's No. 1 killer. Despite decades-long advancements in medicine, 400,000 Americans will die in 2010 from heart disease, according to a British study. The reason? Rising obesity rates.

"We're doing all kinds of expensive research and taking all kinds of costly medicines," said Hughes, "but what are we doing to ourselves?"

Hughes and Katz are big believers in "The China Study," written by Campbell, which points up dramatic connections between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancers — known by some as the "diseases of affluence." The study boils down to this: People who eat the most animal-based foods (generally in more affluent cultures) get the most chronic diseases, and people who eat the most plant-based foods (generally in poorer cultures) tended to avoid chronic disease.

This, of course, is a touchy subject with people who enjoy eating what they enjoy eating (and I don't absolve myself from this point of view, although I've come to eat meat only on occasion and I'm trying to clean up my diet overall; I'll let you know how it goes) — not to mention the meat-production industry.

But here's another touchy subject: All of the heart bypasses and arterial stents in the world are nothing more than really expensive plumbing repairs that can indeed extend lives but on their own do not solve the problem.

"I've always considered coronary disease to be basically a terminal disease," Katz said. "If you had it, you could hopefully mitigate it or slow it down, but you weren't going to stop it."

This is why Katz is jazzed about the notion of patients potentially reversing their heart disease through diet. He has applied to the American Heart Association for a grant to conduct a local study to measure the effects of diet and exercise on heart disease. Now, if he could only find what he calls the "motivational switch" to make others buy into it.

"How many things in life do you get a do-over on?"