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We are what we eat

The cardiologist I found through Google said that only 2 per cent of people in the US are willing or able to change lifestyle habits. Therefore, he concluded that “98 per cent of the time we are failing. We are telling people what changes they need to make for their health but only 2 per cent are making the changes. Here, we are now getting interested and beginning to research what actually helps people make lifestyle changes and get back to the basics that make the greatest difference.”

The context for this discovery online was my search to find out more about coronary heart disease (CHD). There is nothing like personal experience and personal dilemma to energise self-education. The more relevant and practical the information, the easier it is to remember.

Of course, there is a practical need for me to know about CHD in my work as a GP. It is just that the focus becomes sharper when there is a personal ‘skin in the game’, as they say. And so with the benefit of mindfulness, I watched my behaviour from a contemplative place as I zoned in recently on chest pain, angina, stress tests and stents.

I learned the following: CHD is the biggest killer of men and women. I knew that! Women are more likely to die from it, but are less aware of this. Possibly because the symptoms are less classical. The classical symptoms of angina and heart disease are only that: classical.  Sometimes it can be very difficult to separate cardiac symptoms from chest and spine structural issues or from lack of fitness. Often cardiac symptoms can be put down to plain ol’ getting old.

Which reminds me that I wish there was a chart for the normal or even average ageing process at various ages. What is ‘normal’ ageing? When small changes occur in relation to tiredness, sexuality, bowel habits and fitness, how do we separate the ‘normal’ process of ageing from significant or even important symptoms?

My medical journey taught me that a failed stress test or stress test depression can occur in a person after 12 minutes while feeling able for even more exercise. Yet another person passes the stress test even though they give up the test after four minutes, even though they are huffing and puffing. What does this mean? The positive stress test means that there is a 90 per cent chance that you have significant CHD. However, a pass is only 50 per cent accurate so it misses 50 per cent of the at-risk people. So can you pass a stress test and still be at significant risk?

I learned that stents are very common now. They are very useful in acute myocardial infarction and in treating angina. At least in the short-term. But there is no evidence of stents reducing sudden death. Some people seem to need more and more of these stents. I thought the risk from angiograms was 1:100 mortality. It is, in fact, closer to 177 significant events in 10,000.

Some in the medical world see medical treatment as being a very important part of improvements in survival rates in Ireland in recent years. Others might point to surgery and interventional cardiology using angiograms, angioplasty and stents. Few even consider food as cause or treatment, maybe because only 2 per cent of people.

In the US, the human vessel narrowing problem is increasing in direct proportion to the obesity epidemic. We here in Ireland are soon to be number one in Europe for obesity levels. So it seems reasonable to assume we will be seeing more cardiologists and more interventional medicine specialists. We seem to want to follow what the US does. Fashion and culture. Why not study and follow French fashion for lower rates of CHD?

Then hidden in all of this ‘Google’ information is a retired US surgeon called Dr Esselstyn from the Cleveland Clinic. He has shown that a strictly plant-only-based lifestyle can not only stop, but even reverse the risk of CHD. Credible? You will have to make up your own mind.

But the cardiologist from the website of the Mayo Clinic (that must give him some kudos) believes that only 2 per cent of people can change lifestyle. And whether you go the stent route or the medication route or the lifestyle route, you have to admit that our blood plumbing system and the narrowing of atherosclerosis affects every part of our bodies, not just the heart.

A coronary stent will impact on one tiny (albeit very important) area, but a diet change will impact the whole system. A plant-based diet should help with the narrowing and vessel inflammation that affects our entire 100,000 miles of blood plumbing.

We are what we eat. But how can we help people make lifestyle change? With ourselves first. Exercise one hour a day, gentle and regular. BMI of 25. Sleep. Stress reduction. Lastly, but most important, is FFF. Food. Food. Food. That’s what the man from ‘Mayo’ says.

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