Food for Thought

At The Heart of The Matter

February 14th, Valentine’s Day ensures that our hearts are on our minds that day and throughout that month. And why not? After all, where would we be if we were heartless? Woe to the person who doesn’t follow their heart, or who is hard-hearted, or who doesn’t have their heart in the right place.

In the medical community, however, it is heart disease that is front and center in February. Cardiovascular illnesses have been the most deadly group of diseases in America for about 100 years. We have been talking about how to eliminate them for at least the last 70.

In 1955, Dr. Paul Dudley White, former President, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s physician said, “A heart attack after age 80 is an act of God. A heart attack before age 80 is a failure of the medical system.”

Now, sixty-five years later, heart disease remains the number 1 killer in America. Despite our collective awareness, “Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease combined.” (American Heart Association, 2019.) Let’s look at just one of the reasons why “cardiovascular disease is listed as the underlying cause of death for approximately 1 in every 3 deaths” in the USA (American Heart Association, 2019).

Before I go any further, I have to say that based on my years of nursing experience, I can assure you that most of us go into healthcare because we want to help people beat disease. Sadly, many of us in healthcare find ourselves in an awful dilemma, one that is created by a conflict that is baked into our healthcare system. You see, large parts of the great American medical system are really for-profit. Unfortunately, that profit motive can get in the way of doing what is best for people’s health. That’s the problem.

Let me give you two real-life examples in the world of heart health. These examples are not unique. There are more like them all over the country every week.

Example 1. I know a doctor who is the lead cardiologist for a group practice in the Chicago area. We will call him Dr. Jones. He told me this story: 

A few years ago, Dr. Jones and his fellows learned about whole food plant-based (WFPB) health. When these physicians realized the power that a WFPB diet has to prevent and reverse heart disease, they switched the basis of their practice to plant-centric care. As a group, the cardiologists told their patients to eliminate all animal products and increase plant-based whole foods in their diets. Additionally, they told their patients to decrease all naturally oily foods, including avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. 

The cardiology patients took the recommendations to heart. After following the guidelines set by their doctors, many of the patients’ numbers for cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes started to show marked improvements. As a result, the group’s numbers for heart procedures like angioplasties and cardiac catheterizations began to drop. That meant the patients were getting better! There were fewer procedures, fewer medications, fewer cardiac events! Yes! This cardiology group was knocking it out of the park! 

One day, a few months into the improvements, the hospital system’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) called Dr. Jones into his office. Dr. Jones was sure he was about to be recognized for the fantastic work his group was doing with their patients. He entered the CMO’s office with a big smile and a little swagger. Ready to accept some well-deserved kudos, he sat down across from the CMO. 

The CMO said, “Dr. Jones, I notice your numbers for billable cardiac procedures have decreased.” 

“Yes, it’s great, isn’t it!” 

“Well, no, not really. Really, it’s a problem.” 

“What do you mean? My patients are doing well, fewer meds, fewer heart attacks, decreased blood pressures, and signs of diabetes. They report feeling better and enjoying life! How could any of that be a problem?” 

“Dr. Jones, it’s like this. You are a cardiologist. We hired you to attract patients. Then you care for our patients and to make money for this state-of-the-art cardiac center. With your numbers down, you are not pulling your weight. If you don’t do procedures that we can bill for, we can’t cover our overhead. If we can’t cover our overhead, we can’t get the newest equipment, and we certainly can’t pay our staff. You are a great physician, but bottom line, Dr. Jones, but you had better get your numbers up, or you will be looking for another place to work.” 

I can assure you Dr. Jones never saw that conversation coming! He left the meeting with his head spinning. He had gone into medicine to cure people. As a cardiologist, he dedicated himself to beating heart disease. He understood economics, but when did making money become so much more important than saving lives? Dr. Jones had to think long and hard to make peace with saving lives on the one hand and saving livelihoods on the other.

Example 2. A similar situation exists for the American Heart Association (AHA). To be sure, the AHA does excellent work to fund cardiac research and disseminate data. However, if you go to the AHA website and look at the dietary recommendations, you might be surprised. Even with proof that a WFPB diet without animal products or added oils is the only way known to reverse heart disease, the AHA website gives no support for it. On the website, there is an article entitled “Vegetarian, Vegan, and Meals Without Meat.” In that article, the AHA still recommends oils and animal products. Actually, all their “plant-forward” recipes have added oils, dairy, or eggs. And please note if you put “vegan” in the search function, you get no results returned. In other words, there are no vegan recipes offered at all, with or without oil, on the AHA website. “That’s odd,” you might say. “Why would that be?” you might ask. Well, for one possible answer, look at AHA’s list of financial supporters. You will see that it receives funding from egg producers, major food producers, and grocery chains. The AHA also gets millions of dollars from pharmaceutical companies, biotech, and medical device companies. “But taking money from companies that stand to gain from AHA promoting poor advice seems like a conflict of interest!” you might say. And you might be right. Again the question of lives vs. livelihoods and people vs. profit. 

So what can we do about it? Try these simple solutions:

  • Learn the facts about WFPB and heart health. See some resources listed below.
  • Look for objective information sources as much as possible. Verify who is funding which organizations. Be alert for conflicts of interest.
  • Have conversations with your current providers, especially cardiologists, about how they eat and what they believe as health care consumers, themselves. Then decide if their philosophy matches your own.
  • Find and support medical providers that recommend WFPB diets.
  • Watch movies about WFPB and food/health politics.
  • Feed yourself and your family and friends delicious WFPB meals.
  • Join a real or virtual WFPB community.
  • Speak with your local restaurants about offering WFPB oil-free options and support the ones that do.
  • Refuse to patronize restaurants and fast food places that add to illness in the world.
  • Be your own superhero. Refuse to eat foods that you know are heartdeadly.

By taking actions like those above, we can get to the “heart” of the problem. There is no need to wait another 50 years. There is no time. Let’s do something to reduce the burden of heart disease now.

Thanks for your help in the fight.

Meryl

For more information on the WFPB way of eating, and how it affects heart health see:
Ending Heart Disease,” Dr. Kim Williams interviewed by Rich Roll

For more information on money, politics and the selling of American health, check out:
The Widowmaker Movie” released 2015, a film by Patrick Forbes

What the Health,” film by Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. Released in 2017. Also available on Netflix.
PlantPure Nation,” film director Nelson Campbell. Released in 2015. Available free of charge on YouTube

Fast Food Nation,” film by Eric Schlosser. Published in 2001. Film released 2006. Available as Audio Book

In Defense of Food,” book by Michael Pollan, published 2008
Whole,” book by T. Collin Campbell

Write us with questions! We are happy to respond!

Meryl

Meryl A. Fury, MS, RN
President/CEO
Plant Based Nutrition Movement

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