The best advice I ever received was perhaps in the 9th grade. I told my English teacher I wanted to be a writer. She gave me a puzzling frown and replied, "Don't study to be a writer, do something with your life and write about it. The best writing comes when you write what you know."
Twenty years later, I am a physician. My undergraduate degree was in communication studies and deep down, all I ever wanted to do was write. Little did I know that between medical education, a marriage, and three children, I wouldn't find many spare moments in my day to write.
I addition to practicing obstetrics and gynecology, I also practice a plant based died. The journey to health through nutrition has been mostly self-taught, so I was absolutely delighted when I was approached to share my perspectives on Vegsource.com as a blogger. But with contemporaries like Drs. Greger, Klaper, and Popper...I was curious what angle I could possibly bring to the picture.
And then today, just days after receiving my blog access, I was delivered to the very best setting to begin to share my insights as a plant based physician. And of all places, it was the American Heart Association Go Red For Women luncheon. Last I checked it wasn't exactly a secret heart disease kills more American women than all cancers combined. But shall we start from the beginning?
A few months ago I was flattered to be invited join a local philanthropic women's group composed of thought leaders who desired to use their influence to spread the word about heart health. Of all the anticipatory guidance and preventive screening I provide in my practice, heart health is certainly something I discus, so the group seemed like a perfect fit. I could share what I know about diet and lifestyle changes to prevent and reverse heart disease, and due to the group's ties to the American Heart Association, I could gain access to more resources to share with my patients.
The group has met for several social and educational events and I was even asked to share tips for making changes towards a heart-healthy diet. Without an overt vegan agenda, I shared how some of the very best data we have on heart disease came from the human subjects in the Framingham Heart Study--and that nutrition status is a crucial and modifiable risk factor. I briefly reviewed how a high fiber, low fat diet will lower cholesterol, etc. And after my presentation was complete, the group proceeded with a "heart healthy" cooking class where duck breast, salmon, and fat-laden Caesar salad was prepared. I drove home heavy-hearted, feeling as though I had not done enough to point out the forest from the trees.
Today I found myself at the biggest event of the year, the Go Red For Women Luncheon. Following a silent auction of themed purses and gift baskets, over 400 attendees were seated in a beautifully decorated dining room for lunch. As a side note, I had contributed to the auction by enthusiastically donating a vegan tote bag stuffed with materials from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.
I had not, however, taken any trouble to request a meal free of animal products. I can usually get away with being a "low profile vegan," and I was fully expecting to be served some standard banquet vegetarian plate of steamed potatoes and green beans. I truly did not expect what was awaiting me at the table. And I quote from the menu--
Sliced tenderloin of beef over wild rice salad
Baby spinach, Roasted red pepper, Kalamata olive, toasted pine nuts and sherry vinaigrette
Drizzled with watercress pesto
Flourless chocolate cake with white chocolate mikado,
Dark chocolate ganache, white chocolate drizzle, and chocolate fudge sauce
It was my choice to come and also my choice whether or not I wanted to eat. I wasn't going to starve (and was already thinking of the fresh fruit I keep on hand back at my office), so as the presentation began, I settled in for heartwarming stories from survivors and local celebrities, and politely sipped my ice water.
Then it happened. After the blessing, the emcee invited us to enjoy our "heart healthy lunch."
Whoa! Back up a second.
I can accept banquet food. And I can accept that not all venues cater to all dietary preferences, especially when I had not asked in advance. But if I donated a 4-figure sum to attend this fundraiser, I expect to not be lied to or have my intelligence insulted at the suggestion of a "heart healthy lunch."
The presentations were lovely and I unfortunately had to leave before the end in order to resume my afternoon clinical responsibilities. As I drove back to the hospital from downtown, I felt so empty. Sure, my stomach was empty, but I felt more bereft by the missed opportunity I had witnessed. Somehow a brilliant committee of very passionate and dedicated women had managed to get hundreds of women to pay to attend this luncheon, had dozens more sponsor the event financially, and even more than that donate purses for the auction.
Yet, when the fork hit the plate, no one in the room was any wiser about the absolutely most important, crucial, and yet simple way to decrease their risk of heart disease.
By serving a meal that represented just about every misconception of the standard American diet, not to mention touting it as "heart-healthy," every attendee's current nutrition beliefs were only reinforced.
While researching for this post, I went to the American Heart Association website to check some statistics. Today, on the front page was a link to a Huffington Post blog by American Heart Assocation CEO Nancy Brown discussing Dr. Ancel Keys' data about how limiting saturated fat helps your heart. She specifically quotes the November 2013 lifestyle guidelines released by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, which recommended, "limiting saturated fats to about 5 or 6 percent of daily calories to lower blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol (LDL)."
So, with that in mind, let's recap an overview of the nutrition information from today's lunch. I'm not much of an app person, but I do love My Fitness Pal. I utilized this database to plug-in my kind estimations of the food items presented to me today. For 6 oz of beef tenderloin, ½ cup of rice (not accounting for the glistening oil or animal fat I could see it had been bathed in), ¼ cup spinach, and flourless chocolate cake with dollop of whipped cream, it estimated the meal to be 717 calories, with 25% from carbohydrates, 46% from fat, and 29% from protein. Of the 40 grams of fat, 21 were estimated to be saturated fat. Ok, tenderloin is leaner than a pork chop, spinach is green, and chocolate has antioxidants, but no matter how you slice this, I was not served a heart-healthy meal.
Suppose I could overlook the meal. The theme of high fat, low fiber recommendations pervaded the recipes included in the program. The broccoli salad called for mayonnaise, sour cream, and bacon. The nutrition information indicated that 40% of the calories per serving came from fat. Again, the opportunity to share a truly heart-healthy recipe was missed.
Do you need to eat a vegan diet to be healthy? Not necessarily. Has a vegan diet been proven again and again to prevent and reverse heart disease in literally millions of subjects? Yes. Was the topic of a plant based diet even briefly mentioned as an option at this event? No.
Per the American Heart Association website, "Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They're also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer."
How hard would it have been to throw that information in the line-up today? And how many lives could we save if we spent less time trying to raise money and more time trying to really educate people on simple changes such as diet?
The one activity most Americans make time to do every day is eat (ok, and sleep). When we eat we make choices. If you are reading this, you are somewhere on your own journey to wellness through nutrition. Whoever you are and wherever you came from, I welcome you on the path. And until we meet here again, I want to leave you with the slogan the American Heart Associated printed on the donation cards at each seat today -- "Speak Red." In the case of my lunch, the language of Red appeared to be red meat. That had me "Seeing Red." I had the choice to leave the luncheon disappointed and unchanged, but instead I decided to Speak to all of you about how I feel we are still in the Red with our efforts to adequately educate this nation about heart disease.
Let's keep this conversation going. Let's commend the Go Red For Women organization for having over 1.6 million sponsors and raising over $36 million towards education and research. But let's also, as citizens, donors, physicians, and women, insist that the right messages be sent with this money. Let's continue to work with these organizations to provide the whole story, especially when it comes to educating women about all the ways of decreasing their risk of dying of heart disease.
P.S. When I arrived home this evening, I found an invitation to an upcoming American Heart Association event entitled "Advocacy Afterhours", to review key heart disease and stroke priorities with key volunteers.
Despite the events of today, I'm more motivated than ever to assist in educating people about heart disease.
But next time, I'll eat before I go.