In July, I posted a picture of my favorite salad. It’s something I look forward to nearly everyday, and happened as a result of a journey I’ve been on for about 4 years (more successful at times than at others).
A few years ago, after having gone through Chemotherapy and Radiation for Breast Cancer, I decided that I wanted to do what I could to avoid a recurrence. To that end, I found (through my brother and someone I met at a conference) the book Reversing and Preventing Heart Disease, by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. He was a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, and still works there now. He was tired of seeing so many terrible cases of heart disease being treated by invasive surgeries, and wondered if there was a way to treat the underlying causes, rather than the horrific symptoms. His research revealed that the best way to prevent and reverse heart disease (and many other conditions and diseases) is by eating a whole foods, plant based diet.
About the same time, I stumbled on a DVD called Forks Over Knives and decided that I would take the plunge and see if this was for me. (By the way: I have had elevated Cholesterol and Triglycerides for years and this way of eating can help dramatically with that). So I cleaned out my kitchen of all the foods that I would be eliminating from my Standard American Diet, and embarked.
It was not easy at first, because I missed all the comfort foods I’d had all my life. But, by trusting in Dr. Esselstyn’s guidance, my body did adjust. And I must say, when I eat this way, I just feel like my whole digestive system works better. What I found as the biggest challenge, however, was eating away from home, as restaurants can be quite challenging, and catching a quick bite, often turned into a battle of willpower.
For about a year, I was doing really well, and my Cholesterol levels did come down quite a bit, although not as dramatically as I was hoping. I’m not a naturally assertive person, and would rather avoid conflict whenever possible, and eating out or at friends and relatives became a stressor for me as I tried to “not offend”. I also found that whenever I tried to explain what I was doing to family and friends, they looked at me like I had 2 heads, and quickly gave me lots of reasons why what I was doing was wrong.
As I said, I don’t like conflict and this gradually resulted in my questioning my own convictions. I also started Animation School at the Art Institute in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, there was no viable eating alternative at school, being a small downtown campus (one building). Restaurants in the area were difficult because it meant asking for things to be cooked without oil (a key component to eating as Dr. Esselstyn prescribes). So, I fell off the wagon.
I generally stayed animal protein free for awhile, until I again questioned my convictions, and wandered, at times into a “moderation” kind of American Diet. What I always found, however, was that my digestion would come to a halt and I would feel “stuffed” whenever I ate animal protein. But what was I to do?
I felt like I couldn’t get good nutrition advice locally. Every time I’d reach out to a physician (PCP, Oncologist, nutritionist) they all were uneducated in this kind of specific eating regimen.
I met someone recently at a dinner (a gourmet club, ironically, that I was invited to attend) and we started talking about being “vegan”. It turned out that she has been a patient of Dr. Esselstyn for quite some time. It took her longer to get her cholesterol levels to come down, but they finally did. Well, that was not only encouraging, but it gave me inspiration to see how I might become a patient of Dr. Esselstyn, since Cleveland is only about 2.5 hours away.
It turns out that he gives a 1-day seminar each month. You go there, get all the science behind this way of eating, and you get tips from his wife, Ann, who has really championed the “how to” eat this way. She and her daughter have written a cookbook, and we got to sample some foods prepared from recipes in the book. They were delicious and easy to prepare.
And the most amazing thing…Dr. Esselstyn called me about a week ahead and spent about 30 minutes on the phone taking my health history and giving me a little background on the program. (When was the last time a doctor could spent 30 minutes with a patient?) He gave me opportunities to ask questions. I admit, I was a bit “star-struck” when he called. Here is a world famous doctor taking the time to talk to me personally. It was a heady experience. But just what I needed to feel like I had a point of contact, and didn’t have to get through it by myself.
One of the things both Dr. Esselstyn and his wife said was: “You’re replacing yummy food [animal] with yummy food [plant based]”. The recipes have lots of flavor and although it takes some retraining of my cooking habits, I’m so glad to have found them again.
I’m about to head into the most challenging time of year, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah…, but I feel much more empowered this time because I’ve been mostly plant-based long enough, that I’m not learning it all for the first time. As I feel stronger in my convictions than I’ve been, I think I’ll be able to find the kinds of food I want to eat (and where necessary, take what I need to supplement). And, as Dr. Esselstyn says: “What’s going to happen if you miss 1 meal?” Nothing right? I’m not likely to starve. Knowing that seems rather obvious, but to me, it makes a difference.