Friday, January 23, 2009

The new vegan and the health of my heart

I've been a vegan for a week. It's not easy, but actually not as difficult, nor as depressing as I thought it would be. I'm the guinea pig in my wife's nutrition experiment.

[If you don't want all the medical background you can skip the next 3 paragraphs].

What set this off a week ago was an appointment with my cardiologist to discuss my latest blood cholesterol levels. Basically they are not as good as he'd like them to be. By normal standards, my levels are very good. However because I've inherited my Dad's tendency to "naturally" have higher blood cholesterol levels than normal people, and he had a heart attack when he was about my current age, that puts me in a high risk category. Therefore my doc is pushing me to really low levels to reduce the risk of heart disease. He's talked about research that indicates there is certain reversing effects at LDL levels below 2.0 mmol/L.
[note to convert the mmol/L measurement to mg/dL used in the US, then multiple by 40].

I started going to a family doctor on a regular basis in 1992. When I first got tested, my total cholesterol was 6.74. By following a recommended low fat diet I reduced my total cholesterol to a natural low of 5.26 in 1994. In 1997, I started to record the LDL and HDL numbers individually and the corresponding risk factor. My LDL was 3.99 and my risk factor ratio (total/HDL) was 4.87. My levels were hovering around those numbers (+/- 0.5) for quite a few years. In 2006 I complained to my family doctor that I felt some chest/muscular discomfort, maybe from over-excursion playing sports ? That's all it took for her to refer me to a cardiologist ! I did a full stress test (which I aced) and echo cardiogram (my "normal" functional heart murmur may have made an appearance) and he decided that diet was not making a big enough impact on my blood cholesterol levels and we agreed that I should start taking a drug to lower it. I started on 10mg of Lipitor and moved to 20mg/day within a year. I remember him saying that diet really only makes up a small portion of your cholesterol levels and actually said I could relax my diet a little ! Over the last few years the new low was a total of 4.55, LDL of 2.61 and a risk factor of 3.55.

My latest result from a few weeks ago was a total of 4.65, LDL of 2.9 and a risk factor 3.7. This doesn't seem to be good enough for my cardiologist and I must admit I've probably been relaxing my diet a little. The research and guidance suggests that people categorized as high risk should aim for LDL level below 2.0. He said to try harder on the diet and get retested in a few months. To me, that seems quite a jump, but perhaps not impossible. I've asked him on a few occasions how susceptible the results are to daily differences in diet and exercise, but he said the levels are quite steady - but he thinks I can carve off a big chunk in a few months ! However I am still wondering if my unhealthy Christmas habits and a potential missed dose a day or two before the test had inflated the numbers. So after chatting with my wife and relating the news with her findings from
The China Study, I signed on to the vegan program (at least until my blood work). The theory (and evidence) in the study is that most of our (bad) blood cholesterol comes from animal protein. Now I'm pretty sure that's a big generalization, but don't worry, she'll be adding her comments and clarifications quickly after this gets posted. BTW the study focuses on cancer as well, so even though you may not have problems with high blood cholesterol, you may have concerns with cancer, but I digress.

So, back to being a vegan. In case you don't' know, this means cutting out any food that comes from an animal. One gray area I was happy to resolve was pasta. I think most dried pasta is not made with eggs, although some fresh pasta maybe. I may have cheated just a tad over the past week with a few slices of apple pie and some nibbles of high % cocoa chocolate. But other than that I haven't had dairy, meat or fish in a week.

My diet has been a lot of vegetables and fruit, beans, a few meals with tofu (which I must say I've been enjoying for quite a while now), pastas
(already my favourite food) with tomato, pesto or oil olive, grains, nuts and cereal (now with soy milk). I tell you one thing - I makes a trip to the grocery store a lot simpler - you can cut out entire aisles and sections.

And I'm just glad that almost all of my regular liquid intake is already vegan, but first tastes of soy milk in my cuppa is a far stretch for an English lad. Beer and wine - bring it on.

I don't feel that I really need to eat meat or fish, but it's more a matter of finding enough tasty varieties of vegan food so it doesn't become too boring. I can probably do without dairy (although a yogurt based smoothy would be nice), but I'm finding that the majority of dishes I love like pasta, sushi, Asian and Mexican food, and hearty soups have meat or fish added to them. I can't say I'm craving a big steak or a piece of chicken, but I'm sure that day will come. What's a little sad is that I'm actually not looking forward to going out to eat. It will save me some dolalrs for sure, but I'm not really looking forward to my business lunch and dinner on Monday.

Now I've got to wrap up and find something for lunch.

A decent summary of understanding Cholesterol is the brochure Living with Cholesterol from the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.


Eco said...

Wow! That sounds like a heck of an experiment. Kudos to you if you can stick the diet long enough to see what the test results come back as. It would be nice to get some faster biofeedback, especially when you have to go to a fair amount effort to plan meals that fit within the parameters you described. Keep at it and keep us posted - I for one am very curious about the outcome.

P.S. Have you tried Liquid Smoke with Tofu yet? you are supposed to be able to get something close to bacon in flavour....


Carolyn said...

Your wife and I have had some conversations about the vegan experiment, and about the book your mentioned. I'm looking forward to hearing how it goes, and the overall effect it has on your health and well-being.

Suze20TO said...

The timing of "the experiment" is also's easier to resist BBQ'ing when it's 20 below outside (and you have to shovel to get to the BBQ).

What the study found is that as consumption of animal protein increases, so did blood cholesterol. As plant protein consumption increases, blood cholesterol decreases.

Obviously there are still cases of vegans who die of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. These diseases are complex and one aspect can not prevent all cases of these diseases.

Unfortunately, these findings are not popular...with the very powerful beef industry, dairy industry, government, well as people. We like our animal protein foods.

The book also covers how these industries, lobbies and government have tried to block these findings.