When I was growing up in Georgia, my mother put meatloaf on the table all the time. We ate burgers and hot dogs like everybody else and didn’t think anything about it. I don’t remember ever eating fish at our house. This was before we had all the studies about the negative effects of cholesterol, heart disease and saturated fat on the heart that we now have today.
But as the years went on, several experiences and encounters got me thinking about how what we eat impacts our health, and our hearts in particular.
In the late 1960s, after I became a cardiologist, I took a trip to Central Africa. Most of the people there ate a plant-based diet, and heart disease was extremely uncommon. There was also a surgeon there from Ireland, Denis Burkitt, who spent time in Kampala, Uganda. He was surprised by the lack of cases of appendicitis, gallstones, hemorrhoids and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) he saw there.
It turned out the diseases we saw frequently here in the U.S. — where virtually everybody was a meat-eater — were rare among Africans, who ate a totally different diet with a lot more fiber.
But I soon learned that diet impacts more than just our health. Later, I read a book by John Robbins (whose father was half of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire), who pushed a plant-based diet. I started reading more books about what we were doing to all these animals, and the negative impacts of the meat industry on our environment and the health of our planet.
It all got me thinking.
I didn’t really change my diet until the early 1980s, but I became a vegetarian for almost 18 months. Then I started eating fish. Now, I rarely eat any flesh other than fish, which I view differently from other types of meat. There’s some evidence that salmon, in particular, is good for us, and there isn’t much fat in fish.
It’s a difficult thing to change people’s behavior, but I preach it to anybody who will listen. When I was in medical school, I was taught that heart disease was a degenerative disease, that if you lived long enough, you’d get it because it’s purely a consequence of residing on this planet.
To be honest, that’s malarkey. For most of us, we develop heart disease because of what we put in our mouths. Every single day in the U.S., we kill about 100,000 cows — after we’ve put them in feedlots and added all that fat — and 300,000 pigs and about 15 million chickens.
We’re living on all this flesh, and all that cholesterol and saturated fat is clogging up our arteries. Two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight — nearly all of them meat-eaters — and the health consequences of that habit are enormous.
As a doctor, I’ve seen a lot of bad arteries. But I’ve also seen the hearts of six individuals who were 100 years or older. Three of them had essentially no atherosclerosis at all. We don’t have to have atherosclerosis!
I’m a believer that we each have the responsibility to take care of ourselves to decrease the cost of medical care in this country. We can’t leave it up to the doctor to try to fix the problems created by our lifestyle. We have to change our ways, and for many, that means changing our eating habits.
I try to be polite. Telling people what to do rarely works, so instead, I try to set an example by living a healthy lifestyle. I hope that by eating a plant-based diet, others will see the benefits of having a healthy heart and will be inspired to follow a similar lifestyle. And even though I like the taste of a cheeseburger, I like the cows that are walking around, better.
This blog post was contributed by William C. Roberts, MD, a pathologist and executive director on the medical staff at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital.