It’s been more than 20 years since I first wrote about Dr. Dean Ornish, the California internist whose research showed that eating a very low-fat vegetarian diet, exercising, meditating and participating in support groups could reverse heart disease.
The diet alone is tough to follow, especially in our fast food-oriented, meat-crazy culture. But the benefits for our hearts have been proven over and over. As I’ve learned more about nutrition over the years, I’ve tried to keep my kitchen stocked with healthier items – fresh fruits and vegetables, cans of beans, salsa, organic eggs, almond milk. But I often find myself slipping back into old habits.
That’s why I wanted to find out more about how people manage to stick with the plant-based diet recommended by Dr. Christopher Stephenson, the cardiologist I wrote about in Sunday’s Observer.
Bill and Cyndi Farver of Waxhaw have worked with Stephenson since 2011, when the doctor performed a cardiac catheterization that showed Bill had severe blockages in all three of his major coronary arteries. He was about to be scheduled for “urgent” coronary artery bypass surgery.
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Now 66, Bill had gone to the doctor after experiencing tightening in his chest during a hike with his wife. His father had died of heart disease at 55, and his younger brother had recently had bypass surgery. Bill was taking high-dose statins for cholesterol and three drugs to control high blood pressure.
Cyndi recalls her husband telling her, “They ain’t cutting me open.”
The alternative, laid out by Stephenson, was “aggressive lifestyle modification.”
The first six weeks were tough. “My husband grew up eating lots of meat,” Cyndi said. “And I grew up in Texas, where everything is fried and breaded and cooked in bacon grease.”
“Bill could down a big bag of chips and a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi in one sitting. It took a lot of years of my personal nagging … but he was at the point where he was ready to do something.”
In the first six months, Bill lost 58 pounds and about 5 inches from his waistline. He’s kept off most of the weight and had no more chest tightness. He’s also been able to reduce his doses of blood pressure and cholesterol drugs. Cyndi lost 30 pounds.
And once they got used to it, they found life simpler. “Grocery shopping is a breeze now,” Cyndi said. “I have fine-tuned it. I get whatever fresh produce is in season, and that’s what we eat. I chop everything and bag it up. I plan my menus two weeks at a time. … We don’t eat anything with animal. … We have no caffeine. No soft drinks. Nothing processed. No dairy.”
In the cereal aisle, she chooses steel-cut oats. Then she picks up lots of beans, both dried and canned, as well as cartons of almond milk and plenty of spices and seasonings.
“There’s so many things you can do with a portobello mushroom,” she said. “You can make it into a steak or pot roast, tacos or fajitas, or a burger. And with chickpeas, you can make a fake tuna salad. Or use them in soup and chili, enchiladas and burritos. I make a meatloaf out of beans.”
The Farvers’ four grandchildren, ages 3 to 9, have also learned to eat the way their grandparents do. If they ask for something Cyndi doesn’t buy anymore, she said, “I show them the picture of Papa’s heart, and they’re fine with it. They’ll eat something else.”
Today, the Farvers, married for 43 years, rarely go out to restaurants, but when they do, Cyndi says, “I do the ordering.”
She adds: “I don't think he’d be as successful if I didn’t decide to make the change with him. You need a partner. … I know my husband. He eats whatever he can find. If the whole house isn’t doing it with you, I think it would be harder because there would be temptations.”
For his part, Bill says: “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change.”
Meat Loaf Bites
From “Happy Herbivore Light & Lean,” by Lindsay S. Nixon.
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, or dried kidney beans
1 tablespoon each onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder, Italian seasoning
3 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon vegan Worcestershire sauce
6 tablespoons instant oats (may substitute steel-cut oats)
1 cup fresh mixed vegetables, chopped
Mix all ingredients. Coat cups of a muffin pan with cooking spray, and divide mixture into cups. Top with ketchup or barbecue sauce, if desired.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
Yield: 8 to 10 cupcake-size portions. (Double the recipe to make one loaf).