Cardiologist Discusses Plant-Based Diet with Debbie Devore
On December 21, 2016, Debbie Devore asked Dr. Andrew Freeman for a little background information for our readers and then posed the first question as follows:
As a Cardiologist at National Jewish Health, which is considered among the premier respiratory hospitals in the world, what sparked your interest as to what a plant-based diet brings to the table?
I grew up in New York, and like most people, not really focused on diet. Typically, I ate meat and cheese sandwiches, deli food and things like that. I attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, and knew a little about plant-based eating but did not actively seek it out. In medical school, I had a friend who we all thought was a little different, who was vegan because his father had a significant heart attack in his 40s. This vegan friend would have us over for dinner and he would cook for all of us — we loved his food. He would make foods like pizza, stir fries and even brownies made with all plant items. He was an amazing cook, but I didn’t think much about becoming plant-based myself at that time.
Even in medical school I was not exposed to diet. I don’t ever remember thinking about prevention or even talking about it. At conferences and seminars that took place around the medical school and hospital systems, we ate steak, barbecue, and heavy meat and cheese dishes. It was the standard fare and became expected by many of the healthcare providers.
I accepted the position of Cardiologist at National Jewish in Denver because the lifestyle here was attractive to me, and my wife was born and raised in Denver. I was thinking about raising a family in a few years and it seemed like such a good place to be.
After several years practicing standard Western cardiology, I became frustrated at my lack of results in my patients and began to learn and research more into lifestyle medicine where I came across many of the works we all know well such as the China Study (T. Colin Campbell), Forks Over Knives (Caldwell Esselstyn and others) and many more. After reading these and doing the research, I became plant-based literally overnight and transformed my own health and quickly brought this to my practice with astounding results. At the same time, I was also fortunate enough to work with vegan cardiologist, Dr. Kim Williams, who worked with me to develop the American College of Cardiology’s Nutrition and Lifestyle workgroup which I now chair. (Dr. Williams is now a past President of the American College of Cardiology and advocates a vegan diet.) At the time, there were probably only a few dozen or so doctors in the country advocating this lifestyle. And from there, I began speaking on the topic and educating others in this approach.
*Dr. Freeman was recently appointed the Director of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Wellness at National Jewish Health.
Do Your Patients who are trying to begin plant-based eating take a gradual approach or do they try to go “cold turkey?” What do you recommend?
Most people do not have the will power to take a gradual approach. Most people are wired best for an all or nothing approach, which is why diets like the ultra-low carbohydrate diets have been so successful. Of course, many suffer from what I call the “once-in-a-while syndrome,” which is when people justify having a less health food “only once-in-a-while” but before long this becomes a “once-in-a-while” food every day. If they are willing, I encourage my patients to go all the way because the benefits are so clear and miraculous for the ones that do it, but unfortunately, many don’t try. For some, gradual is key – even concepts like “Vegan Before Six” have merit.
Would you say that plant-based eating can be prescribed as part of a preventative protocol and possibly used to reverse disease?
I believe by nature our bodies require primarily plant-based foods. The body naturally heals itself when put in a milieu of a healing anti-inflammatory environment. If we don’t provide what the body naturally needs to heal, it’s like kicking your shin repeatedly and expecting it to heal. It won’t. In my practice, I became fed up with constantly throwing pills as the only remedy. Of course, there are side effects that require more pills and it just goes on and on. Yes, I use Western medicine to stabilize a condition and then I encourage patients to go plant-based because it is the best way to completely reverse disease.
I started reading and studying about diet with “The China Study” and “Diet for a New America,” amongst dozens of others. At the same time, I began doing some spiritual reading and dove deeper into things like mindfulness-based stress reduction. I even remember the last cheeseburger I ate up in the mountains on a family ski trip and the next day, after finishing another book, I went totally vegan. I felt like I needed to educate myself and I began to read more and even attended VegFest Colorado later that year. This eventually lead to the research I prepared for speaking engagements that I gave the following year at VegFest and then multiple lectures all over the country.
Did you develop the Walk with the Doc Program? Why is this so important to you and how does it fit in with a plant-based diet?
Actually no. Walk with the Doc was developed by Dr. David Sabgir in Columbus, OH. I began the first site in Colorado and it is one of the most successful in the country. We have five or six walks around Denver in any given month. The reason we do this (in part sponsored by National Jewish) is because it is a vehicle that promotes the importance of using exercise as medicine, proper diet, mindfulness, and stress relief. It also provides support and connection with our patients. Recent research supports the positive effects on cardiovascular health of connection, support, and of course love. Check out Denver.WalkWithADoc.org for more info on Walk with a Doc.
We want to thank Dr. Freeman for letting us interview him. His approach to a healthy lifestyle is invaluable.