Yesterday, my mom had a stent put in her heart to fix an 80-90% blockage in one of her arteries after eating a mostly healthy Mediterranean Diet most of her life. She’s doing ok now and should be able to go home today. I also found out yesterday that my cholesterol and triglycerides are still high, even after 2 years of eating a whole-foods plant-based no-oil (WFPBNO) diet…well mostly. More on that below. My mom’s heart disease and my horrible cardiovascular numbers have left me wondering, can vegans get heart disease?
My mom is now in her mid-70’s. She has always been active and a healthy cook, at least according to American standards. I remember as a kid, dad and I would WATCH the :20 Minute Workout while she actually DID the :20 Minute Workout. It’s still more fun to watch it than to do it!
She walks almost every day and does physical therapy for her knees and hips, which are still hers. Overall, she has always been very active and a mostly healthy weight.
In addition to regular exercise, she has always eaten lots of fruits, vegetables, dark leafy greens, nuts, legumes and whole grains. She’s never been a big meat eater, but she does eat some lean meats despite my efforts to get her to give it up.
She also likes cottage cheese and skim milk for breakfast, and the occasional egg. Oh, and she cooks with olive oil, but not a lot and much less these days. Excluding eating at restaurants, her diet is almost textbook Mediterranean without the fish and wine (she hates fish and alcohol doesn’t agree with her).
Over the course of her life, she has probably eaten a 70% WFPB (Whole-Foods Plant-Based) diet, with it being closer to 80% over the past several years. By commonly accepted American dietary standards, she should be healthy. So why is she in the hospital sporting a brand new heart stent? Of all the people in my family, she’s the last one (besides me) that I would expect to have cardiovascular disease.
Despite her active lifestyle and “healthy” Mediterranean diet, she still has high cholesterol, which is probably the reason for her current heart condition. But if she’s eating a healthy Mediterranean diet, how can she still have high cholesterol?
Before you say, “But cholesterol and saturated fat don’t cause heart disease!” I’m sorry to say, yes they do. We’ve known this for decades. The plaque in our arteries is literally made of oxidized cholesterol. The confusion on this topic was manufactured by the meat, dairy, egg and cooking oil industries with studies designed to create doubt where none existed. They simply can’t afford to have you stop eating their products, even if it kills you.
My Battle With High Cholesterol
Like my mom, I’ve always been pretty active and eaten a Mediterranean-style diet. That is, until 2 years ago when I went WFPBNO. I was a very picky eater as a kid, but I still ate healthier food than most adults did thanks to mom’s cooking.
As a new adult cooking on my own, I ate veggies and lean meats at most meals. Breakfast was usually eggs or oatmeal. I didn’t eat much fruit, legumes or whole grains (except oatmeal), and I’ve never been a processed food eater.
In the 2007 to 2009 timeframe, I did P90X with Tony Horton pretty religiously. I was in the best shape of my life. I ate an almost strictly Mediterranean diet with some whey protein shakes thrown in because, you know, protein (cue eye-roll).
Despite being in my 30’s, in great shape and eating what is commonly accepted to be a healthy diet, I still had high cholesterol. In fact, my doctor put me on a statin to bring it down.
Without the statin, my cholesterol was in the mid to high 200’s. With the statin, I got it down to 196. However, it had one irritating side effect: Despite the amount of time I spent working out, I wasn’t able to add much body mass. I was also ridiculously tired and sore all the time. I was thin, but I wanted to be bulkier. And more protein shakes didn’t help.
After a couple years of my cholesterol being in the “normal” range (now I know better than to think 196 is normal), my doctor agreed to take me off of the statin. I was able to maintain the roughly 200 cholesterol levels for awhile before they started creeping back up again.
By the time Amelia and I went vegan in March of 2016, my cholesterol was back up to 258. I had also gained 20 pounds mainly due to my back issues, immobility and the resulting depression. Food was my medication of choice. My doctor was threatening to put me back on the statins again. Ugh…
Going Vegan Didn’t Fix It. Neither Did Going WFPB.
Within 3 months of going vegan, I had lost 7 pounds and my cholesterol had dropped from 258 to a respectable 208. A 50 point drop in 3 months! I thought I’d found the cure to my high cholesterol! Stop eating cholesterol!
It was around this time, 3 months into veganism, that we learned the difference between vegan and WFPB (Whole-Foods Plant-Based). We assumed they meant the same thing when we first went vegan, but they don’t.
Veganism is an ethical lifestyle that seeks to eliminate animal suffering by excluding the consumption of all animal products in any form: food, cosmetics, clothing, testing, etc. You can be a junk food vegan and drink soda and eat potato chips all day. Not a problem, unless you don’t want to die of a heart attack.
WFPB is a diet consisting of only whole, unprocessed plant foods: fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains. We were already eating mostly WFPB as new vegans, but we stepped up our game even more once we learned the difference. We thought surely that would slash my cholesterol into the heart attack proof range!
About 6 months later, we learned WFPB also means no oil, which makes sense because oil is a refined product like sugar. The only difference is that oil is 100% fat while sugar is 100% carbs. You’ll sometimes see this called the WFPBNO diet, with the NO meaning “no oil.” So we cut oil from our cooking, too!
After cutting all animal products, processed foods AND oil from our cooking, my total cholesterol went UP to 229!!! W-T-F?!!!
After all of the success stories and all of the documentaries and all of the books showing how well WFPBNO works at preventing heart disease, why was I in worse shape?! What the hell was going on?! Can vegans get heart disease?! Seriously?!
Weight Loss Didn’t Help. Neither Did More Exercise.
Determined to figure this out, I decided to lose more weight. I was still carrying an extra 25 pounds despite eating WFPBNO. That’s a myth about the diet. If you need to lose 100 pounds, it’s hard to eat enough calories on a WFPBNO diet to maintain it without losing weight. But if you only have 20 or 30 pounds to lose, it won’t magically fall off of you. It’s easy to eat enough calories to maintain an extra 30 pounds. And apparently I was eating enough.
So, equipped with renewed motivation, I lost 15 more pounds. Most of the weight came off with 5:2 Intermittent Fasting. I only ate 600 calories on 2 non-consecutive days of the week for two months. In other words, I lost the weight with calorie restriction like everyone does.
I also got more active by brisk walking 4 to 6 miles per day. Swimming twice per week. And lots of physical therapy for my back to strengthen my core.
During the two months leading up to my next cholesterol check, I even started deep breathing meditation and I got a weekly massage to help with back pain and to help lower my stress level, which is thought to increase bad cholesterol and triglycerides.
Surely, the weight loss, exercise and mental health would send my cholesterol plummeting! I mean, how could it not?
Total cholesterol: 225. The exact average cholesterol level of coronary artery disease victims.
Down a measly 4 points. But that’s not the worst of it. My HDL (good) cholesterol dropped a point to 38 (good is over 40) and my triglycerides shot up 102 points to 296 (good is under 100)! That puts me in the danger zone for a heart attack! A vegan at risk of heart attack?! Again, W-T-F?!!!!!!
I guess vegan can get heart disease, after all….
It’s Time to Be Honest With You (and Myself)
Amelia and I eat pretty much the same things. We rarely eat apart. We cook together and we eat at restaurants together.
She does more intense cardio than I am able to, she has more lean muscle mass than I do, and she is at her ideal weight…she doesn’t have 10 pounds to lose like I do. But for the most part, our diet and lifestyle are very similar.
She had her cholesterol checked a year ago and it was in the 150’s.
I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that I have a genetic predisposition to elevated cholesterol and triglycerides. In addition to my mom’s current condition, I also had a grandma and great-grandma who died from strokes. Not a good sign.
However, I think it’s time to be honest with you and with myself. While we eat a WFPBNO diet at home most of the time, we don’t always eat at home. In fact, we eat out at restaurants quite a bit…probably 3 to 5 times per week.
While we only eat vegan food, that’s still a lot of oil, sugar, refined grains, french fries, cheese-less pizza, bread, desserts, etc. We also drink beer and wine several times per week.
We know the owners and the employees of our favorite vegan restaurants so we really enjoy frequenting them and supporting them. It’s more than food; it’s a social outing and it’s helping the vegan cause.
We also have mostly non-vegan friends and a lot of our social activities are centered around food and drink. That means we’re often stuck eating the only vegan thing on the menu: french fries (saving vegans from starvation everywhere) and beer/wine.
While we tell people we eat a WFPBNO diet, that’s not really true. We eat a WFPBNO diet at home 95% of the time. Amelia makes the rare dessert with sugar and coconut oil, we occasionally have chips and salsa, and we nibble on chocolate (probably more than I realize).
But even worse, we eat out roughly 15% of the time. That means we’re only eating WFPBNO about 80% of the time.
Could that other 20% of food with processed oils, sugars, grains, saturated fat and alcohol be driving up my cholesterol and triglycerides? Could my genetic predisposition to heart disease be magnified by eating out and drinking beer and wine? Could I lower my cholesterol and triglycerides by improving my diet…EVEN MORE?
Mic the Vegan would probably say: YES, DUMMY!
There is one positive possibility for why my cholesterol and triglycerides are high right now: weight loss. Over the past 6 months, I gained 4 pounds, but over the past two weeks, I lost 2 pounds. When we lose weight, our bodies release fat into our bloodstream, which can temporarily increase both our LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Let’s hope this is the cause of my poor results on this test, but the trend doesn’t look good. I hadn’t lost any weight prior to the last test, which wasn’t substantially different.
My Next Steps…
My worst fear isn’t dying of a massive heart attack. That’s the easy way out (at least for me). My worst fear is laying in bed for years like my grandma did after she had a stroke. That would be my hell on Earth. I want to avoid living like that, and if that means I eat out less, stop drinking and exercise more, then so be it.
After consulting with my doctor, he’s willing to give me 3 more months before we talk about statins. I REALLY don’t want to go on those again. That gives me 3 months to clean up my diet and intensify my exercise.
So here are my next steps to try to control my cholesterol and triglycerides with diet and exercise:
- Lose 10 more pounds with calorie restriction and some 5:2 Intermittent Fasting again. That will put me at 170, which is inside the healthy BMI recommendation for a 46 year old male at 5’10”. That’s a picture of me in college (with hair) weighing in at 165. I’m not sure I want to be skinnier than that at my age.
- Stop drinking beer and wine. Period. No more alcohol. Done. Finito. Pfttt. Not a big deal. I go long spells without drinking anyway.
- Reduce eating out to special occasions. When I do eat out, order a salad or other healthy, non-fried, non-processed, low-fat, low-sugar option.
- No more chocolate. That’s really Amelia’s vice anyway. Oh yeah. The chocoholic has the low cholesterol. Grrrr.
- Reduce my bread intake. I’ve been eating more whole grain bread lately with my Avocado Toast, but Greger says that can also contribute to higher triglyceride levels if you’re really sensitive.
- Increase my dark leafy greens and nut intake. Greger says the nitric oxide that our bodies make from plants help treat heart disease. I used to eat a big salad with nuts and beets on it every day, but I’ve gotten out of the habit. I’m going to bring that habit back.
- Increase my swimming from two times per week to five times per week. Swimming is also relaxing for me so maybe that’ll help reduce my stress level, too.
This all may sound extreme, but so is laying in bed for years from a stroke or getting a stent in your heart or having open-heart surgery or dropping dead of a heart attack.
My grandma laid there in a hospital bed after she had several strokes with tears running down her cheeks, unable to speak…for 3 years. I felt immense sorrow for her and still do. No one should have to live like that, especially when it’s preventable.
After my mom’s sudden and unexpected heart problems, and getting my unpleasant blood work results on the same day, I think the universe is trying to tell me I need to take this more seriously. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
As I take this journey to improve the condition of my cardiovascular system, I’ll post more updates about my progress, weight loss, blood work, exercise, thoughts, feelings, etc. I’ll share them on social media so be sure to follow LottaVeg on Facebook.
Thanks for reading. Now it’s time to exercise!