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CNN keeps airing “The Last Heart Attack,” in which Dr. Sanjay Gupta tells the story of how and why President Bill Clinton was put on a vegan diet by Dr. Dean Ornish, and how Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s #1 selling book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease echos the same dietary advice. As you know, reversing disease is something I care a lot about, but I’m not convinced Dr. Essylstyn’s heart attack proof diet is delivering what he promises.
Early in the show Dr. Gupta discusses Clinton’s strict vegan diet and defines its underlying philosophy: “No more meat. No more eggs. No more dairy. Almost no oil. The mantra is, eat nothing that has a mother or a face.”
(I have to agree with Dr. Gupta’s implication: If your olive oil has either a mother or a face, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf.)
Dr. Esselstyn contends that, with his diet, heart disease is completely preventable.
“Once they start eating this way, you [sic] will make yourself heart attack proof. We know that if people are eating this way, they are not going to have a heart attack.”
That’s a powerful and compelling claim. And there’s no denying that Dr. Esselstyn puts his money where his mouth is. Some of his seminar attendees have opted to forgo their doctor’s recommendation to undergo heart surgery and, instead, adopt Esselstyn’s diet. If, God forbid, one of them were to develop angina or have a heart attack, that would prove Dr. Essylstein’s heart-attack-proof claim (tragically) false.
What’s Wrong With this Picture?
To help demonstrate the benefits of veganism, Dr. Gupta and his CNN crew tells us President Clinton’s harrowing story. Concerned for her husband’s health, First Lady Hillary Clinton contacted vegan guru Dr. Dean Ornish, who was soon brought on as the President’s physician consultant on nutrition. Ornish completely reworked the President’s diet, steering him away from meat and dairy and directing the White House staff of chefs to, as just one example, replace beef burgers with the soy variety.
That was back in 1993. And what was the outcome of this dietary intervention? Though the TV show never addressed how well Clinton adhered to the diet over the years, according to the CNN program, “even with Dr. Ornish’s help,” by 1999 the President had put on 18 pounds. Then, soon after leaving office, Clinton began experiencing the symptoms of heart disease. In 2004, he had a quadruple heart bypass operation. By 2010, his doctors felt a followup operation was needed, this time to insert two stents.
By 2014, Clinton had been advised by another prominent doctor that vegan diets are too high in starches and sugars, and too low in protein. Thus, vegan diets put people at high risk of developing diabetes and pre-diabetes, along with complications of those conditions that include, unfortunately, heart attacks.
Now, before you think I’m trying to poke fun at Dr. Gupta, or Dr. Ornish or any of the practitioners of a vegan diet, let me say this: vegans helped to get consumers thinking about animal welfare. So props to them.
No, mostly I just wanted to offer Dr. Gupta a little friendly advice on the art of story telling.
Dr. Gupta: If you’re telling a story about, say, the importance of dedication in which a young girl practices shooting free throws four hours a day and doesn’t stop practicing all the way through high school, make sure to have that dedication ultimately benefit her somehow. Say, she earns a basketball scholarship to Stanford.
And if you’re telling a story about Bill Clinton benefiting from a decade of following a vegan diet, please don’t end the story with the protagonist (Clinton) clutching his chest on a hospital gurney, heading into the ER for yet another operation.
But enough literary theory.
Here’s how to tell a story:
Once upon a time an entire nation trying to feed a burgeoning population on the cheap came to depend on nutritionally bereft corporate foods. Then, one day, the best doctors and scientists and nutritionists and farmers and chefs—vegan and primal and everything in between—all got together and agreed on something: the way we’ve been doing business, particularly the way we’ve been caring for animals and the land, is insane, and that neglect is reflected in our food, and it’s killing us. Then they decided that working together would make things better.