"It is no surprise that half of all Americans develop heart disease, because the typical U.S. diet puts almost everyone at risk", explains Dean Ornish M.D. Dr. Ornish and colleagues have shown in a prospective landmark study that a low fat vegetarian diet (coupled with moderate exercise and stress reduction) can actually reverse established severe coronary artery disease. This angiogram-evidenced study has been published, reviewed by physician peers, and is very powerful. People can reverse heart disease through lifestyle changes! Unfortunately many have criticized Dean Ornishís program for being "too drastic", feeling that people are simply not willing to make significant lifestyle improvements. By default it follows that these same physicians must believe that their patients have grown accustomed to the more "traditional, commonplace" heart therapies of today (medications, angiograms, stents, open-heart surgery). I personally spent a week in Berkeley, California in 1998 as a participant at an Ornish retreat. I can assure you, a plant-centered diet just did not seem all that "drastic" to those people with heart disease I met in California, especially when they compared it to our present day medical alternatives. Dean Ornish tells people to make healthful changes "not out of the fear of dying, but out of the joy of living".
Not only do animal foods (primarily meat, poultry, and dairy products) contain the bulk of the very cholesterol and saturated fat that we all know to stay away from, but these animal-based foods absolutely lack "the good stuff" that is critically important for us (minerals, vitamins, fiber, and phytochemicals). Tim Byers M.D., MPH and professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, agrees. "A plant-based diet with lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of heart disease." There are many known and yet unknown ways that diet can improve health. The soluble fiber from legumes, grains, and vegetables lowers blood cholesterol and folic acid (a B vitamin from fruits and vegetables) reduces harmful blood homocysteine levels. Walter Willet writes, "The evidence that folic acid reduces the risk of heart disease is pretty strong." It appears the LDL ("bad" cholesterol) damages arteries only after it was been oxidized in the body. That is why antioxidants like vitamin E and the many phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are also crucial. Incidentally, it is this blockage of LDL oxidation by the flavonoid components (phytochemicals) of red wine or purple grape juice that appears to explain why these grape products may reduce the risk of heart disease.
It has become clear that aggressive lowering of a personís LDL cholesterol is crucial in preventing coronary artery disease. LDL levels below 100 are the present goal, and an optimal LDL may well be below 70. If an individualís care requires such low LDL values (she/he has several risk factors for heart disease) and cannot attain them by diet and exercise alone, then we of course today are lucky to have medications which do work very well.