Taking plant-based living to heart: Dr. Esselstyn’s movement to combat heart disease

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is a renowned physician, author, and advocate for plant-based nutrition. He has been at the forefront of the medical community for decades, pioneering research into the power of a vegan diet to prevent and reverse heart disease. His work has revolutionized how we view health and nutrition, inspiring countless people around the world to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Learn more about Dr. Esselstyn in this episode of VKind Connects!

Early Life and Career

Dr. Esselstyn was born in 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio into a family of physicians. After earning his undergraduate degree from Yale in 1955 and his medical degree from Case Western University in 1959, he completed his residency in surgery at The Cleveland Clinic. He then served as an Army surgeon during the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1968. 

When he returned home in 1968, Dr. Esselstyn joined the staff of The Cleveland Clinic as an attending surgeon specializing in breast cancer surgery. In 1985, he became Chief of the Breast Cancer Task Force at the clinic’s Department of Surgery.  During this time, he conducted groundbreaking research on how lifestyle changes effectively treat coronary artery disease (CAD). 

Geographic differences in rates of disease inspired Dr. Esselstyn to begin the heart disease reversal program

While treating patients for breast cancer, he felt a nagging feeling that he wasn’t doing anything to prevent it. At the same time, he discovered in his research the vast differences in geographic rates of chronic disease. He learned that in some cultures, cardiovascular disease is virtually non-existent, and breast cancer rates are much lower.

Desiring to help the greatest number of people as possible, he decided to focus on addressing the United States’ number one killer: cardiovascular disease. If patients would adopt a plant-based diet to prevent heart disease, they would also dramatically reduce their risk of the most common cancers. 

So, in 1985 he began his first study treating patients who were seriously ill with heart disease with a plant-based diet. Five years later, he retired from clinical practice to focus on research into plant-based diets to prevent and reverse heart disease. 

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and his wife Ann Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Ann Esselstyn

What foods does Dr. Esselstyn recommend?

Dr. Esselstyn is best known for promoting a whole-food, plant-based diet without any animal products, processed foods, or oils. This dietary pattern has been proven to reduce cholesterol levels, improve blood pressure, and even reverse coronary artery disease.

The core principles behind Dr. Esselstyn’s vegan diet are simple: eliminate all animal products (including meat, dairy, fish, eggs and seafood), processed foods (such as white flour or sugar), and oils (including olive oil) from one’s diet. Additionally, he emphasizes whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits; plenty of water, exercise, rest, and B12 supplementation. He advises limiting sodium intake; avoiding saturated fats; and even consuming only small amounts of nuts and seeds. 

Many people wonder whether vegan diets are deficient in protein, iron or B12. But Dr. Esselstyn emphasizes that a whole food plant-based diet will likely make you healthier than you’ve ever been in your life. A plant-based diet is nutritionally optimal, not only because of eliminating harmful animal-based foods but adding phytonutrient-rich plant foods.

How excessive oils increase the risk of disease

Dr. Esselstyn explains that oil consumption injures the endothelium, which makes nitric oxide. This molecule protects our blood vessels and artery walls and keeps us from developing heart disease. Yet meats, animal products, sugars, and even excessive fats and caffeine injure them.

Dr. Esselstyn’s research into plant-based diets and heart disease

In 1985, Dr. Esselstyn published one of his most influential studies. Its results revealed that patients could reverse CAD themselves through dietary changes alone – without drugs or surgery. This revolutionary finding challenged conventional wisdom about treating heart disease. 

In this study, he put twelve patients with advanced CAD on a low-fat vegan diet consisting mainly of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. No animal products were allowed during this two year trial period. At the end of this period, all twelve patients had significantly improved their health. They successfully reduced cholesterol levels and improved blood flow to their hearts—all without any drugs or surgery! 

Why Dr. Esselstyn went vegan

To practice what he preached, he decided to adopt a plant-based diet himself. Having grown up on a beef farm, he found the transition difficult. But after his wife’s mother and sister were both diagnosed with breast cancer, he and his wife were spurred on to adopt a plant-based diet. 

Books by Dr. Esselstyn

Since then, Dr. Esselstyn has continued advocating for plant-based diets as a way to prevent and reverse not only heart disease but other chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. He has written numerous books, including Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease (2007), My Beef With Meat: The Healthiest Argument For Eating A Plant-Strong Diet (2013) and The Plant-Based Solution: America’s Healthy Heart Doc’s Plan To Power Your Health (2020). 

In his books, he outlines how people can use dietary changes alone to prevent or reverse coronary artery disease without medications or surgical intervention. He also provides delicious recipes for readers interested in transitioning away from animal products towards more plant-based meals.

Media appearances by Dr. Esselstyn

In addition to writing books about his work, Dr. Esselstyn has appeared on a number of television programs, such as the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, CNN Newsroom, Anderson Cooper 360°, Larry King Live, and more. He continues speaking around the world today about how individuals can take control of their own health by making simple yet powerful dietary changes scientifically proven to prevent and reverse chronic disease.

Dr. Esselstyn’s boards and organizations

Dr. Esselstyn serves as an advisor on several boards dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Forks Over Knives, Naked Food Magazine, and Nutrition Action magazine, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He even founded The Plantrician Project, which aims to help health professionals better serve their patients. It provides them with evidence-based advice about plant-based nutrition to promote long lives free from disease. He serves on its board of directors, alongside other leading vegan experts, like doctors T. Colin Campbell, John McDougall, Dean Ornish MD, Neal Barnard MD, Michael Greger, and others.

Today, Dr. Esselstyn continues to promote plant-based diets through speaking engagements around the world while also serving among others. He is also actively involved in clinical trials researching how lifestyle changes can improve cardiovascular health outcomes such as reducing inflammation markers associated with atherosclerosis progression or improving endothelial function, which is essential for maintaining healthy arteries throughout life.

Why don’t most other doctors promote plant-based lifestyles?

 Dr. Esselystyn answers that there are two main barriers for physicians to overcome: 1) convincing patients to their lifestyles can be time-consuming and difficult. He explains that 1) Doctors don’t have the time or patience to spend extensive time consulting with patients and 2) Doctors are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for bypass operations or stents, but little for consultations about lifestyle changes.

How Dr. Esselstyn’s message inspires us

 A low-fat whole food plant-based diet helps you live the life you desire!

So, what’s Dr. Esselstyn’s takeaway message? While adopting a low-fat plant-based lifestyle is a significant transition, its reward is enormous. You can vastly reduce the risk of strokes, cancers, vascular dementia, heart attacks, Crohn’s disease, lupus, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, allergies, asthma, and more. 

Dr. Esselystyn’s program shows people that eating animal products and excessive oils subtracts from your quality of life, while a plant-based diet helps you live your life to the fullest! Through simple yet powerful dietary changes, people can take back control over their own health. Because of Dr. Esselstyn’s work, countless people around the world are living healthier, longer lives filled with more energy and vitality.

By taking plant-based living to heart – you can, too!



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