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with Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Clinton Declares Vegan Victory

While he was president, Bill Clinton packed on the weight. Talk about stress eating! By the time his two terms were up, he was 20 pounds heavier and looking forward to a well-deserved rest.

But he was still gobbling burgers, shakes, and fries. Four years after leaving office, Clinton was on tour promoting his memoir “My Life” and his life took a sudden turn for the cardiac. Chest tightness led to a quadruple bypass and a major come-to-heaven session with himself.

It was time to clean up his act — and his arteries.

For the next five years, Clinton was more diligent about his diet, cutting calories, and increasing his physical activity. But it still wasn’t enough. In 2010, he had to undergo another operation, this time to repair clogged veins from his bypass.

That’s two strikes. Clinton was not going to wait for number three. It was time to get serious — real serious — and get radical. So, Bill Clinton went vegan.

“I like the vegetables, the fruits, the beans, the stuff I eat now,” Clinton said in a recent CNN interview. Guided by doctors who have recommended a plant-based diet, he now weighs 185 pounds and is so inspired by his new lifestyle that the Clinton Foundation has partnered with the American Heart Association to promote healthy eating and exercise in 12,000 schools across America.

Why did Clinton go this route? For the same reason that my dad radically changed up his diet and exercise after suffering a major heart attack and undergoing a triple bypass. My dad was 69 at the time and is a strapping 85 years old now.

Have you ever been in a cardiac intensive care unit? Your tube-to-orifice ratio exceeds unity, and the constant beep-beep-beep of the heart monitors and scurrying around of the nurses makes sleeping mission impossible. Bottom line: It’s a scary place that you don’t want to return to if you can prevent it.

My dad swore he’d never go back and he hasn’t. You get one ticker and when it’s aching, it sends the fear of the Lord through your mind and body.

So, motivated by two very frightening events, Clinton read the handwriting on the wall. It was time to take the gloves off and bag every food that could possibly contribute to his ongoing struggle with heart disease.

Out went dairy, eggs, and meat, with only a parsimonious amount of oil used. Cholesterol comes from animal products and the hope is that by eliminating those foods, you’ll also prevent more plaque buildup and possibly augment the healing process in previously clogged vessels.

The key is to decrease inflammation and support heart health with the natural vitamins and minerals found in veggies, fruits, legumes and grains.

What are some challenges that comes with a vegan diet?

  1. It can be challenging to find appropriate foods at a restaurant. It’s important to work with the waiter and chef to customize what you’ll need to eat. No more, “I’ll take a burger and fries”. Now it’s, “Steamed vegetables, brown rice and beans, please.”
     
  2. Vitamin B12 levels can drop, raising the risk of anemia, neurologic problems, and even heart disease. B12 comes from micro-organisms associated with animal products. The way to get around this is to eat foods fortified with B12 (such as some plant-based milks, cereals) and/or take B12 supplements.
     
  3. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish to reap the cardio-protective benefits of the omega-3-fatty acids. If you’re not eating fish, then you can increase your consumption of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which is a precursor to EPA, one of the essential omega fatty acids. ALA is found in flaxseeds, canola oil, walnuts, and tofu. You also need omega-6 fatty acids as well and these can come from vegetable oils, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and peanut oil.
     
  4. Calcium intake should be monitored. Dairy products provide 70% of the dietary calcium for the U.S. population. Vegans should drink calcium-fortified juices or soy milk on a daily basis, eat calcium-rich foods throughout the day, and consider taking a daily supplement. Calcium intake needs to be spread throughout the day for optimal absorption.
     
  5. Iron can be a problem. This can be monitored with a blood test. When you need a supplement, you want one with ferrous iron salts (ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate, and ferrous gluconate).
     

Clearly, Clinton has adapted and adjusted to these challenges because he knows that the benefits far outweigh the price he pays with this restricted diet. Since cholesterol is only found in animal products, vegan diets are completely cholesterol-free.

This was a no-brainer for our 42nd president. Like my dad, he never wants to revisit the inside of that coronary care unit if he can help it.

As my dad once said, “I’ll take my walking path and lentil soup over another heart problem any day. Want to join me for a walk?” He always knows I’m a sucker for a long walk on a beautiful day — really, any day will do. Something tells me Bill Clinton feels the same way.

Posted by: Pamela Peeke, MD at 9:34 pm

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