As an Emergency Medicine physician, when I hear the term “food-borne illness,” it immediately conjures images of people with vomiting and diarrhea secondary to consuming undercooked or spoiled food contaminated with bacteria or their toxins. However, I recently learned of a new usage of this term. In his article, “Is the Present Therapy for Coronary Artery Disease the Radical Mastectomy of the Twenty-First Century?” Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn ascribes a new meaning to the phrase “food-borne illness,” referring to coronary artery disease as this type of illness. According to the CDC, coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. It is the narrowing and blockage of blood vessels supplying blood to the heart, which can eventually lead to heart attacks. The CDC also states that in the United States, over 20 million adults over age 20 have CAD and that someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds.
Those are some pretty frightening statistics. But luckily, doctors have treatments for heart disease. We have an armamentarium of medications as well as procedures such as coronary stents and coronary artery bypass surgeries. These are remarkable advances that are lifesaving for those that are having a heart attack. However, as Dr. Esselstyn states, “…none of the present therapies targets the cause: the Western diet.” Yes, our Western diet—filled with processed foods, fried foods, meats, oils, and dairy. He describes cultures that consume a plant-based diet in which CAD is almost non-existent. Moreover, the converse is also true. When plant-based cultures adopt a Western diet, guess what? Yes, that’s right, they develop CAD. Thus, it seems as though heart disease really is a food-borne illness.
History also teaches us this lesson. Between 1939 and 1945, Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany. During this time, the Germans removed all animal livestock, forcing the population to subsist on whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Following this, deaths from heart attacks and strokes fell. When the war ended, and animal products became available again, deaths from these illnesses rose to prewar levels. Thought-provoking, isn’t it?
In his article, Dr. Esselstyn mentions a study he conducted on very ill patients with CAD that he placed on a plant-based diet. These patients have thus far been followed for twenty years, and the results are fascinating. A plant-based diet not only stopped the progression of heart disease but even reversed it! Yes, reversed it. Furthermore, this study and its follow-up showed that people with CAD would stick with dietary changes for decades. If provided with an understanding of the link between diet and disease, I believe that people will want to take control of their own health and give themselves the opportunity to be better.