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Heart health begins in the gut, experts say

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published January 31, 2018

METRO DETROIT — It’s true that February is typically associated with Valentine’s Day, but the popularity of American Heart Month and National Wear Red Day Feb. 3 is gaining momentum every year. That makes sense, since the American Heart Association estimates cardiovascular disease to be the largest killer the world over, with 17.3 million deaths annually.

Like our mothers told us years ago, the way to, well, anyone’s heart is through their stomach. So instead of sugary candy hearts, maybe we should slip our beloved a stalk of broccoli.

At least that’s what Dr. Sindhu Koshy will be doing. The cardiologist with St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Warren sees patients every day who’ve been diagnosed with heart disease  or who know they have a family history of cardiac trouble. A major part of her treatment plans across the board is to tweak those patients’ diets.

“The diet is such a big part of heart health because you don’t need a prescription for it. You can start eating better whenever you want, before you even have issues,” said Koshy. “That starts with eating more greens and more vegetables, adding more fiber and avoiding sugar as much as you can.”

While many of us may think a big, juicy steak is a ticking time bomb for the ol’ ticker, Koshy said sugar is really worse. 

“We’re supposed to have less than 25 grams of sugar per day, which is very little when you look at processed food. Sugar is in everything,” she explained. “You add some dried fruit, like raisins, to your oatmeal or eat a sweetened yogurt and you don’t get the benefits of those foods anymore.”

For those who haven’t run into heart troubles yet, a moderate amount of salt and a low intake of red meat should be fine, according to the doctor. But an effort to stick to a Mediterranean diet — one that’s high in fish and vegetables — could ward off issues in the future.

“Then you get all those good fish oils,” she said.

A plant-based diet, or vegan diet, could be helpful for those who’ve experienced cardiac illnesses and want to “reset” their body. But it might be a little extreme for some folks, Koshy said, noting that she’s not vegan herself.

But a plant-based diet, while intimidating, made a world of difference for Paul Chatlin, the founder of the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, which he said is the largest group of its kind worldwide. 

“We get calls from literally all over the world these days from people asking how they can replicate our (program),” he said. “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. People come to us because they have diabetes or heart disease and they need to make a change, and they’re very, very successful when they’re around like-minded people.”

When Chatlin tells people of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet free of meat, dairy, oils or nuts, he admits that his case may seem unappealing. 

That’s when he lets the numbers do the talking.

“When I had just turned 55, I was eating what I didn’t even realize was a bad diet, and I was a tennis player. Doctors couldn’t explain why I had severe angina and couldn’t take more than 10 steps because my chest hurt so bad I couldn’t breathe,” he said of what he later learned was a full blockage in his right artery. “I was 220 pounds at 55, and my cholesterol was 347. And today, five years later, I weigh 160 and my cholesterol is 100. I didn’t have a bypass surgery.”

A plant-based diet — which is a lifestyle change, Chatlin said — saved his life and gave him a  steady physique and energy levels that trump those even from his younger years.

But that doesn’t mean the journey was easy — just worth it, he said.

“We’re not set up in this world to eat this way. You have to have time; you have to prepare,” he said. “There are even times when I go to a restaurant (that) I have to ask how they prepare their salads, because some places spray their vegetables with oil to make them look prettier. But as someone who was a steak and potato and pizza person, it’s amazing how my taste buds have changed and how I don’t at all mind things like squash and zucchini.”

But any change starts with a small step, Chatlin knows, and he said that’s where his group comes in.

“I would say start with some numbers. Get your A1C checked (to discover average blood glucose levels), your cholesterol or, better yet, a whole lipid panel. Take down as much information as you can so you know what you’re dealing with,” he explained. “Then eliminate the things that are worst for you. I would argue dairy is the worst, and second (is) oil. And they sneak oil into everything, like baked beans for example. And then maybe swap your main dish protein and your side. So cut that meat in half and double the amount of your vegetable side dish.”

For more information on the Plant Based Nutrition Support Group, visit pbnsg.org.