Advice From a Vegan Cardiologist
New York Times | August 6, 2014
Dr. Kim A. Williams, the president-elect of the American College of Cardiology, often sees patients who are overweight and struggling with hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. One of the things he advises them to do is to change their diets.
Specifically, he tells them to go vegan.
Dr. Williams became a vegan in 2003 because he was concerned that his LDL cholesterol — the kind associated with an increased risk of heart disease — was too high. Dr. Williams wrote about his reasons for going vegan and his belief in the cardiovascular benefits of a plant-based diet in a recent essay at MedPage Today.
Veganism has grown in popularity in recent years, reflected by the explosion of meat-free cookbooks and restaurants, and vegan-friendly products in grocery stores. But the endorsement by the man who is set to become the president of one of the country’s leading cardiology associations, which helps formulate health policies and guidelines, did not strike a totally positive chord.
“I didn’t know it would create such a firestorm of everything from accolades to protests,” said Dr. Williams, who is also the chairman of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The response was really loud, and much of it diametrically opposed.”
One person suggested he was promoting a radical diet to his patients based on the experience of a single person: himself. Others accused him of trying to get the college of cardiology to encourage everyone to go vegan, which he dismissed. And some critics suggested that Dr. Williams and the college were “unduly influenced by industry,” which baffled him.
“Who is the industry that promotes vegan dieting?” he asked. “Maybe the people who publish books on it. But that wouldn’t be considered industry, I don’t think.”
Dr. Williams said that his switch to veganism was prompted by a routine blood test about 10 years ago.
The test showed that his LDL cholesterol, which had been 110 a couple years earlier, had climbed to 170. Dr. Williams, who was about 49 at the time, said he assumed that age and physical activity had played a role; his once frequent levels of exercise had fallen, and cholesterol tends to rise as people get older. But he also suspected that his diet was not as healthy as he had thought.
“I was basically eating chicken and fish, no skin, no fried food and no red meat,” he said. “I thought it was healthy. But it was low fat instead of low cholesterol, which is what I needed.”
Researchers have long known that the relationship between the dietary cholesterol found in food and the cholesterol that circulates in the blood is complicated, varying greatly from one person to the next. In many people, the cholesterol in food has only a minor or negligible effect on blood cholesterol levels. But in some people, the effect can be more pronounced, which Dr. Williams said was probably the case with him.
He eliminated cholesterol from his diet by avoiding dairy and animal protein to see if there would be any effect. Instead of eating chicken and fish, he started eating vegetable-based meat substitutes like veggie burgers and sausages made from soy and other plant proteins and nuts. He also switched to almond milk from cow’s milk.
Six weeks later, his LDL had fallen to 90.
“It seems that the response to dietary cholesterol and other changes in diet are all genetically determined and quite variable,” he said. “One person might go from 170 to 150 by going to a plant-based diet. Another person might go from 170 to 90.”