August 25th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Gupta: Becoming heart attack proof

Editor's note: Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports: The Last Heart Attack at 8p and 11p ET on Saturday, September 3rd.

While working on “The Last Heart Attack,” I had a chance to interview some extraordinary people around the country. Patients struggling with heart disease provided lessons that can sometimes be taught only after being smacked in the face with their own mortality. For example, I have never seen former President Clinton so candid. He was convinced he was going to die back in 2004, after feeling chest tightness during a flight back to New York on a small plane.

I interviewed cardiologists who believe we are so darn close to virtually eliminating heart disease. And, the truth is, it doesn’t involve spending any more money, investing in any more research or creating anymore tests. Rather, it will take a strict implementation of what we already know about diet and nutrition. It will also take brave champions to navigate through the clutter of confusing counsel, special interests and shoddy science.

One day, I had a chance to speak to a couple of those champions candidly while waiting for a shoot to begin - Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and  T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.  I had read Campbell’s book, "The China Study," years ago and remember how audacious he was in telling readers that most of what they believed about food and its relationship to health and disease was plain wrong. His findings changed the way people all over the world eat, including me.

And, I will admit, while I had trained my whole life to treat disease after it developed, I wasn’t medically trained in nutrition to be able to help prevent some of these diseases in the first place. Most of what I have learned has been on my own, since leaving medical school, and I think that is true for many doctors of my generation.

Simply put, Campbell’s research team found people who ate the most animal-based foods also had the most chronic disease. As important, people who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest. Campbell went on to describe the specific connections between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. He also wrote of the ability to use nutrition to reverse these conditions – something that can start at almost any age.

Esselstyn took it a step further. “Sanjay, we want to make you heart attack proof.” Pretty audacious, I thought, but I couldn’t help but be engaged by this Cleveland Clinic surgeon, who was now devoting his life to preventing the diseases he made a living treating.“We are never going to end the epidemic of heart disease with stents, bypasses and medications,” he told me. That was music to my ears, because I didn’t want any of those things. Of course, it would involve essentially eliminating meat, dairy, eggs and oil – even olive oil. “Nothing with a mother, and nothing with a face,” the good doctor added.

Honestly, over the years, I have practiced the adage “eat to live,” not “live to eat.” Still, I knew it was going to be tough to carry out what he was asking. I started with a practical question for him. He was on the road traveling, and I was curious what he ate. “Thai food is always a good bet,” he told me. Sharon Kintz, who is a 66-year-old heart patient, joined me in Times Square to prove she could find a meal that satisfied her vegan requirements. Even former President Clinton says he is a vegan nowadays, and doesn’t at all miss the fast food for which he was once famous.

Virtually eliminating heart disease – it can be done, and truth is, we have known for a very long time how to do it. People have said to me as I was preparing this documentary – “Sanjay, you are advocating a radical change to the way we eat.” Perhaps, but if you really think about it, the way we eat now is in fact more radical. And when we look back on this time, a couple of hundred years from now, I guarantee you that our diet of today will be considered one of the most radical in history.

If we collectively ever want to get to the point where we have “The Last Heart Attack,” a good start would be to stop ignoring what we already know to be true.

soundoff (352 Responses)
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  5. Nick Godbey

    I wanted to thank you for your program in eating a plant based diet. After seeing your program I read Dr. Esselstyn's and Dr. Cambell's books on the subject. I am 59 years old and have had high cholesterol (220) and high blood pressure for 20 years. My wife and I have been on the diet over 3 months now. After just three weeks of the diet my cholesterol dropped to 150! I feel better and both my wife and I have lost over 10 pounds. We eat all we want but we keep losing weight at a slow rate. We're finding great tasting foods and we have completely changed our kitchen over to all whole plant base foods. We are now full fledge vegan-woo's. (Vegan-With-Out-Oil).
    I really want to thank you for your program, its made us healthier and happier. I've never been good in the kitchen but now I'm enjoying helping my wife good great meal!

    December 18, 2011 at 22:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Arin

      Vegan diet not all that great in long turn. Look out...http://arintraining.blogspot.com/2012/03/vegans-vs-paleo-cant-we-all-just-get.html

      March 15, 2012 at 02:39 | Report abuse |
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  6. Jerry Feldman

    A friend recently had a cardiac event which prevents full use of his left ventricle. Sorry, I am not good at medical things. I saw a show where there was an experimental medical procedure using a patients dna from his own heart to repair muscle limitations from scar tissue (I think) on the heart. I do not know any more. Can you lead me to an article on this procedure. Thank you for your help.

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  7. Samuel Getaneh Bogale

    Interesting article – definitely the possibility of a heart attach is worrisome. I understand the importance of a plant based diet and will use it to offset the worry.

    January 13, 2012 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Gail

    I can't thank you enough for your show, "The Last Heart Attack". I had some sophisticated blood tests done after watching the show, and found that my inflammation was significantly elevated, as was my cholesterol. I am now on a statin and my cholesterol has greatly decreased. My inflammation and heredity factor has not. I thank you for the information, and I continue to see a cardiologist to determine how to lower my inflammation. I am 5' 3" and weigh 112 pounds and am a 57 year old female. I have worked out for years. I have been told that I am at genetic risk for heart attack or stroke. Having watched your show, I have become a strong advocate for my own health. Now I need to determine how to lower the inflammation. Any suggestions?

    January 22, 2012 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Thank you for your report on the last heart attack....I got dr. e. book and read it....I started the plan...I saw the evidence and the xray to prove his advice.....I hope I can stay on it as I am tired of taking pills and feeling tired....thanks for bringing this to our attention and PLEASE FOLLOW UP WITH DR. E again for more information and updates...thank you ^.^

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.