At 9:15 PM on Tuesday April 2, 2007, just as the opening credits for that evening’s episode of Star Trek Enterprise started rolling, I had a massive heart attack and died. Three times in fact. I died on my living room floor, in the ambulance and once again in the ER. Long story full of heavy drama, cliff-hanger close calls, amazing technologies and personal transformations, but the upshot was that I spent 6 days in a cardiac ICU and generated well over a hundred grand in medical debt. The nurses later told me that only 4 percent survive the kind of heart attack I had.
Very. Close. Call. Yep.
Coming out of that event I was seriously disabled. A 50-foot walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway required a 45 minute nap afterwards. Nonetheless, in between naps I could go online and I did. My focus was, “What the hell happened?” I had no significant lifestyle risk factors, no family history of heart disease and had been a strict vegetarian for over 40 years, eating a diet that included no meat, fish, birds or eggs, or anything containing those as ingredients. I did eat dairy products, including milk, cheeses, yogurt and butter, but those were the only animal products I consumed and I had them in small amounts. I was 56 at the time of my heart attack, just 3 weeks before my 57th birthday.
How could I – a low-fat, high complex-carb vegetarian eating a plant-based diet as recommended by everyone from Michael Pollan to Michelle Obama – end up with a host of serious and chronic health issues and have one of them kill me dead? (Yes, obviously they brought me back, but that was entirely a function of good luck, modern medical technology and especially the clot-buster injection that went straight into my heart, and then later, the arterial stent. And obviously I was not dead-dead. Nobody comes back from that. I flat-lined. Or, as Miracle Max may have said, I was “…mostly dead.”)
I ate all the “right things,” exercised regularly, didn’t eat “the bad stuff” such as saturated fat, and yet I still got whacked. If I was this vulnerable to heart disease, then something was seriously wrong with how I was living my life, and the first suspect was my diet. That heart attack required that I re-examine all my closely held beliefs about nutrition, health and food. I began intensively researching this topic, and was eventually fortunate enough to find some really significant information and resources. More on that later.
First off let me remind you that I’m not a doctor and I’m not giving medical advice. I’m a survivor of a massive heart attack of a type that very few survive. The nurses and docs warned me that the damage to my heart and cardiovascular system was so severe that they gave me a survival prognosis of three months to maybe two years tops. As of this writing it’s been nearly ten years since. For me, understanding what happened and what to do about it was literally a matter of life and death. While I am no longer afraid of death at all, I am rather fond of my life and am not terribly anxious for it to end. My understanding of this issue was then and continues to be a top priority for me.
At the time of my heart attack I was shocked to discover that my total cholesterol was normal (179) according to conventional wisdom, but that I was prediabetic (A1C of 11.2 so BG maybe around 280 if I remember correctly), that I weighed about 215 (give or take), that I had IBS, high blood pressure, serious arthritis and a host of other underlying conditions. Nobody tells us that half of all fatal heart attacks occur in people with “normal” cholesterol, and they certainly do not advertise that 70 percent of diabetics die of heart disease. Clearly there are direct causative correlations between those two. And now there is even some early data saying that Alzheimer’s may be a form of Type 3 diabetes. We’ll see – more research necessary there.
However. It turns out that everything we’ve been told about fat and dietary health is backwards and comes from a profit-based collusion between government, big agriculture, the food processing industry and the big pharma companies. It’s not that they are in some massive conspiracy, just that everyone’s greed for profits has produced an interlocking set of belief systems that is extremely toxic and damaging to us all. It started with Ancel Keys and his faked research and deceptive cholesterol reports after World War II and the pattern went on from there. It’s called “the lipid hypothesis” and it’s one of the most heinous deceptions in modern medicine.
There is no causal relationship between cholesterol levels and heart disease. The lipid hypothesis is a health scare that has been completely invented, made up out of nothing and sold to the American public using every marketing and advertising technique available to Madison Avenue. If the dietary advice about low-fat diets really worked, why then are the rates for cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity still sky-rocketing? I – as a lifelong low-saturated fat plant-eater vegetarian – should have been completely exempt from heart disease. Nope.
It took me two years of research before I discovered, worked out and fixed the culprits in my food supply. I experimented and played with my food and swapped things around until I developed real certainty about what was optimal. I stopped eating any grains or carbs, no sugars or sweeteners, and although altogether the conversion and transformation took about 3 years total, I eventually even quit eating plants at all. The result is that my daily intake of carbs is typically below 20 grams per day, and consistently less than 10 grams.
Turns out that there are two kinds of human metabolism – fat-driven ketosis, where we metabolize ketone bodies, and the sugar/carbohydrate-driven insulin-based metabolism. Ketosis and the fat-based diet is how we evolved, but as a fall-back for times when meat is scarce we can survive on carbs. It’s not optimal, and we suffer for it, but once we get back to a meat diet we can recover very quickly.
Fat doesn’t make you fat and it’s not fat that kills you. The culprit is sugar. And guess what? Every gram of carbohydrate you eat is nothing more than a gram of glorified sugar. Furthermore, obesity (with some rare exceptions) is a symptom of metabolic starvation. When we eat fat it becomes fuel and it burns clean. When we eat carbohydrates and sugars our body thinks we are in starvation and it converts much of that sugar to fat, storing it for later. The problem is that sugar does not burn clean – it requires insulin, and excessive insulin generates severe inflammation, glycation, insulin resistance and eventually hyperinsulinemia, which of course leads to the big 5 – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and many types of the sugar-derived cancers.
The reality is that nutrient-rich traditional fats have nourished healthy human population groups for hundreds of thousands (and quite likely, millions) of years. Humans are natural-born fat-seekers and fat-eaters. Remember, 50 to 60 percent of the total caloric value of human breast milk is from the saturated fat it contains, and that nutritional requirement does not go away when we wean.
Butter, whole raw milk and whole raw cheeses
Beef and lamb tallow
Chicken, goose and duck fat
Marine oils (like cod liver oil)
all fatty meats
I find it interesting that medical researchers call this the “French Paradox” because the fatty ingredients above are what make French cuisine so amazingly delicious, yet as a people, the French have a significantly lower rate of heart disease and rates of death by heart attack when compared to Americans. The same high saturated fat ingredient list contributes to the healthier aspects of the Mediterranean diet, which produces health outcomes very similar to what happens in France. In Okinawa, where we find the longest-lived people on the planet, the primary fat is from pork and pork products, which contributes a significant percentage of their daily caloric intake. Saturated fats are so important to our health that if we don’t eat enough of them in our foods then our body will make them out of carbohydrates. This is also part of the reason that people eating a low-fat diet have such consistently high cholesterol levels. If we don’t eat sufficient cholesterol then our body has to make it, and our blood levels spike. We need that cholesterol for every single cell membrane in our body, as well as for all our neurotransmitters. Ever wonder why low-fat dieters are so susceptible to mood disorders?
I recommend reading the ingredients list on every food item we buy. If it contains any of the following 5 ingredients, don’t buy it and certainly don’t eat it:
1) enriched flour (usually white and heavily refined),
2) white sugar,
3) high-fructose corn syrup,
4) partially hydrogenated vegetable oils of any kind,
5) fully hydrogenated vegetable oils of any kind.
The following laboratory-developed and machine-processed fats listed can cause serious degenerative diseases:
All hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils including hydrogenated lard
Soy, corn and safflower oils
All plant fats heated to very high temperatures in processing and frying
When you add in high-fructose corn syrup to the mix, along with all the chemical additives, pesticides and whatever leaches from plastics into our foods, is it any wonder that our diet is killing us? I just read a recent study that high fructose corn syrup is the number one favorite nutrient preferred by cancer cells.
Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, thyroid problems, high blood pressure, arthritis, ADHD, autism, osteoporosis, dental caries and gum disease, obesity, allergies, many kinds of cancers, reproductive dysfunction and sterility – all these have significant contributing factors that arise in some degree from our diet, and the quality of the foods we eat and don’t eat.
For over 5 years I only ate fat and meat and drank only water. Period. 80 percent or more of my daily calories came from animal fats (butter, lard, pork fat, tallow and so on) and about 15 percent came from meat proteins. When I’m thirsty I drink water. That’s it. Although this time of year (August) when the wild blueberries are ripe on my land, I might have a handful on the way down to go canoeing on the river that is the western boundary of my place. I see no negative effects from this so far, but the quantities are small and the frequency is low.
My metabolism stays in nutritional ketosis. I’ve lost well over 50 pounds of belly fat and weigh in around 160 give or take a few pounds. My IBS vanished, and so did my GERD and arthritis. My blood pressure is 110 over 70. My A1c is between 4.2 and 4.4, and regular blood testing shows my BG levels consistently run between 85 and 105, so I’m no longer prediabetic. Total cholesterol is about 170, my triglycerides are at 42 and even the plaque in my arteries has been diminishing. I’m in the best health I’ve been in since I was 20, in spite of the old damage to my heart muscle from the CVE in ’07. My cardiologist, when he found out I was eating a primal diet (some might call it paleo but I don’t because I go way beyond that), just went batshit crazy, jumping all over my case about how I should be on statins and eating very low-fat. I flat out refused the statins. Then I asked him, if all he said was true then how did he explain my blood chemistry results? He couldn’t. I eventually had to fire him because he refused to wake up to the fact that nearly everything he knew and advised about food, nutrition and my health was not only incorrect, but ass-backwards. If you need a doctor, find one who is paleo (or primal) friendly.
If you like to eat plants, then I highly recommend you follow the meal plan of my good friend Steve Cooksey, who is a classic example of an insulin-dependent T2 diabetic who no longer requires insulin or any other meds. (If you eat the way the ADA recommends you will stay sick, stay insulin-dependent and you will die a miserable death for no reason.)
If you don’t like eating plants and want to experience the most robust health possible for humans, then go full-on zero carb and follow my friend Esmée La Fleur’s elegant eating plan here:
That is the simplest way of eating that humans can follow – eat meat, drink water. End of story.
For those of you who love the science and the details, I recommend Nora Gedgaudas – links to her videos and her book can be found here:
Primal Body, Primal Mind – Beyond the Paleo Diet
You should be aware that eating this way will generate a lot of push-back from people who have no idea what they are talking about – friends, family, poorly informed true believers such as vegans and dieticians and so on, even many doctors. They have not lived this experience and they are operating from conviction founded upon belief. Instead of listening to them, just trust your body. Do the work that growth requires, heal and live well.
It can take a while to adapt to zero carb and ketosis but once you do, you will be amazed at how quickly you will heal, how great your body feels and how effortless this way of life is.
For more background, I also highly recommend you read
“The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability” by Lierre Keith
The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz
For a female perspective on this journey to understanding food, nutrients, and body health,
here is my partner Jenny’s process in three parts on her blog – Our Daily Crime:
The Politics of Food: Questions
The Politics of Food: Reluctant Journey
The Politics of Food: Ideology