Merely following a vegan diet did not make me immune to the dangers that my genetics were feeding me.
A Scary Story
tl,dr: skip ahead if you like.
The first time I was personally affected by the deadly ravages of heart disease was in the middle of my first week in high school. It was 1984 and like most teens, my life was consumed with new friends, the mall, homework and Magnum, P.I..
One night, after a typical round of prime time TV, I said goodnight to my parents. As I left, I asked my dad if he was feeling okay. He looked kind of off, as if he was bone tired and his eyes were bloodshot. He said he was fine, maybe just getting a cold and he would probably go to bed soon, too.
I awoke at 4:00 am to the sound of sirens. My mom burst into the pre-morning dark of my room, dropping our dog on the floor. “Keep Sparky in here with the door closed until I come back.” She shut the door.
In our living room I heard muffled voices, mostly my parents, some of them strangers. Getting on my knees, I buried my cheek in the carpet and tried to peek under my door. I couldn’t imagine what was going on, it seemed like chaos. There was a rhythmic beeping and someone was asking my dad questions, I couldn’t exactly hear them or his murmured answers. I was itching to get out there and know what was going on. Was my big brother in trouble? Were the strangers in our living room police?
I was contemplating all this when the beeping turned into a long, steady drone.
“Bob! Bob!” I heard my mother shout my dad’s name. More chaos and urgent voices. After a few moments, the rhythmic beats started again.
After what felt like an eternity, my mom came back into my room. Her eyes were red and she looked panicked. “They’re taking your father to the hospital and I’m going behind them. I’ll call as soon as I know anything.”
I was stunned and scared. Nothing like this had ever happened before. My mom arranged for an adult neighbor to come and sit with us until she could get home, which was awkward at best. Finally, she arrived and told us what had happened. Still young at 37, my father had suffered a major heart attack and was lucky to have made it through. He would be in the hospital for at least a couple of weeks, but he would recover.
Why It Happened
My father had a lot of factors that contributed to his first heart attack (there would be several more to follow). He had smoked since his late teens, had struggled with weight for most of his life, and our whole family followed a diet that was high in animal proteins and sugar, and low in fruits and vegetables. Back then, not as many people knew how to manage their personal stress and we were no exception. After that first heart attack he completed a program where he stopped smoking, shed several pounds and we all learned the word “cholesterol.”
Amazingly, he’s still around today. At 73, he gets more exercise, doesn’t smoke and eats better than he did in the 1980s. Yet he’s still suffered some attacks, undergone a couple bypasses and has a new stent put in almost every year. We have a joke that the surgeon should just put a zipper in his chest to make things more efficient.
What I Got Totally Wrong About Plant–Based Diets and Heart Disease
If you arrived here from somewhere else, you can read the story above, but it’s not necessary.
Ever since that day in 1984, I have been fascinated with heart disease, what causes it, and how to either manage or prevent it altogether – preferably without having to take drugs with their accompanying side effects.
And of course, I thought, I’m totally different from my dad. I won’t have these problems. I was wrong.
Naturally skinny as a kid, I carried on with my poor eating habits into adulthood. I imagined that they didn’t affect me because, well, I was thin, wasn’t I? I felt healthy, I worked out. I must be invincible, right? I smoked. I drank. I ate crap. I did all the things that my dad had done wrong and somehow I felt like I could get away with it. And I did get away with it for a long time.
Along with my wife, I became vegetarian at 22, I stopped smoking and drank a lot less. My wife and I still ate eggs and loads of cheese. As a vegetarian, I felt like I was safe from heart disease, simply because I didn’t eat red meat, chicken, or fish.
Over the years, I read more about heart disease and diet. I learned from Drs. Ornish and McDougall. I devoured everything from Dr. Andrew Weil. I became vegan in 2001 and went to too many vegan festivals to count. Our kids are vegan. Over the years my wife has become an amazing vegan chef, even converting our old meat-based favorites into vegan miracles. Heart disease? Bah! We are untouchable!
Until I discovered we aren’t.
One day, I read a post in a vegan Facebook group where a man recounted his recent experience having a heart attack. At first I was suspicious. A long-time vegan having a heart attack in his 30s? I didn’t believe it. I denied the possibility, chalking it up to the guy probably lying about being vegan (not proud of that).
But it ate away at me. Something about it bothered me. Was I really safe just because I ate a vegan diet? My whole family history on both sides is rife with heart attacks and high blood pressure. My grandfather died of a major coronary when my father was only 14 (sound familiar?). I decided that I was a fool if I didn’t at least get checked out.
My Own (Surprising) Heart Issues
In 2018, I had my first physical in over 20 years. Mostly, I was fine. By most standards, I was in great shape. Yet I was still shocked by some of the results. My blood pressure was borderline high. My HDL cholesterol was low at 48, my LDL was high at 136. My overall cholesterol was 201, which isn’t in danger territory, but again, borderline.
My doctor and I discussed my family history. She suggested that I might want to start on a statin and blood pressure control medication, even though my levels were only on the high side and not actually “high.” As shocked as I was at what the blood showed, I declined. If, after all things considered, I was still only borderline, I knew there had to be something more I could do. I would try like hell to avoid taking pills. Simply being vegan wasn’t enough. I decided to take a hard, honest look at my lifestyle. She sent me home with a blood pressure monitor, which was humbling.
It didn’t take long to come up with a list of Things I Was Doing Wrong.
- I ate way too much oil. And not the good kinds.
- In the past ten years, I hadn’t been exercising like I used to.
- I ate too many processed foods, like cupcakes, chips, burgers and fake chicken sandwiches.
- I drank too much.
- I was way too stressed out.
The more I researched, the more I found plenty of causation between those activities (or non-activity) and high blood pressure/high cholesterol. Merely following a vegan diet did not make me immune to the dangers that my genetics were feeding me.
I made significant changes in every area of the list. I cut down on oil in general and I almost completely cut out processed foods that contain oil (okay, so I’m human). When I do use oil in cooking, it’s mostly cold-pressed olive or coconut. I cut down on processed foods in general, like cakes and cookies. I still eat those things, but it’s more occasional and not daily. I cut down on the alcohol, but it’s still a habit that’s easy for me to fall into. At least I’m much more conscious of how much I drink and when.
The stress thing? Let’s say it’s a work in progress.
Finally, in January of 2020, I started running again. I’ve been a runner all my life, but since 2008 I pretty much stopped running or doing any cardio whatsoever. It’s been a wild horse to jump back onto, but I’m happy to say that I have regained my endurance and even lost about ten pounds. Better still, my blood pressure is down to healthy levels and isn’t “borderline” any longer – without the use of medication.
Heart Health is a Journey, Not a Destination
With all of these little successes, I know that I’m still not simply “done.” I will have to work at this for the rest of my life. I’m okay with that. I’m back in control of my body and I know what I need to watch out for in the future.
Still, this goes beyond me. I have to make sure that with our shared genetics, my kids understand that this will absolutely affect them and that they’ll need to pass down this information to their kids. I’m also newly dedicated to helping other people understand their own heart health and how a plant-based diet doesn’t guarantee some kind of super immunity from heart disease.
This little journey started for me in 1984. Maybe now it’s time I opened it up and share it with others so heart disease will eventually be eradicated.
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