The Power of a Plant-Based Diet
By Jessica Levco
At 56 years old, Sherry Shrallow was a healthy, fit woman who exercised every day and ate a Mediterranean-style diet. She had a family history of heart disease, but still — she was the last person she thought would ever have a heart attack.
Until she had one.
Fortunately, though she very nearly died, doctors were able to save her that day. Two months later, she adopted a plant-based diet to ensure her first heart attack would be her last. And a few years later, with the support of Rush cardiologist and plant-based diet expert Kim Williams, MD, she continues to follow a diet that has helped lower her blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
'Please don't let me die'
The heart attack happened on Nov. 10, 2010, when she and her husband were living in Houston. That afternoon in her office, she became nauseated and light-headed, and started sweating profusely. Before she passed out on her couch, she thought to herself: I'm having a heart attack.
When she woke up, she called her husband, and he called 911. She crawled to open her locked office door, and within five minutes, the paramedics rushed in, confirmed she was having a heart attack and took her to the nearest hospital.
She told the cardiologist: Please don't let me die.
At the cath lab, doctors discovered that 99 percent of her right coronary artery was blocked. With the catheter already inside of her, she vomited on the table. That movement apparently caused the catheter to dissect her aorta.
The cardiac surgeon told her husband she had a 20 percent chance of making it out alive. She coded three times.
She was jolted alive each time. Quickly, the medical team fixed her aorta. They did emergency bypass surgery, leaving her chest open for several days. They put her on a right ventricular assist device for two days and, later, stitched up her chest in the OR.
During her recovery and rehabilitation, she lost a lot of weight and felt weak. Her doctors kept telling her that she needed to eat more animal protein. But she was confused as to why she needed to eat foods like meat and eggs that had cholesterol.
Before the heart attack, her primary care physician prescribed a Mediterranean-style diet and exercise as a way of lowering her blood pressure and cholesterol. She also took low doses of statin and blood pressure medication.
Anything below 200 mg/dL for cholesterol is considered normal, and before her heart attack, she was at 175. She had mild-to-high blood pressure, around 140/80. She attributes the cause of the heart attack to the consumption of animal foods, which caused the plaque formation in her right coronary artery.
Discovering the healing power of plants
Two months after her heart attack and bypass surgery, she read Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, which inspired her to transition immediately to a whole food, oil-free plant-based diet.
After three months on the diet, her cholesterol dropped from 175 to 130. Her blood pressure had gone down to 125/70.
In 2013, she returned to Chicago with her husband and made an appointment at Rush with Williams, who is internationally known for his commitment to and research on plant-based diets.
He's also an expert in plaque regression therapy, which he believes is the best way for patients to avoid having heart attacks. There are several types of plaque regression therapy, but the one he encourages patients to follow involves eating a plant-based diet and taking statins.
About 60 percent of his patients have had some kind of heart-related failure and 40 percent are at risk. Since he's out to save lives, this is the acronym he tells patients to remember:
- Vegan diet
Recently, Williams checked Shrallow's arteries with a nuclear scan. That coronary artery that was 99 percent blocked? Now, eight-and-half years later, the bypassed artery is doing all the work. It has, amazingly, taken back its full function. However, on the site where the aorta was repaired — there's a pseudo aneurysm (think of it as a small bubble).
To make sure it doesn't burst, Shrallow continues to eat a plant-based diet and has decreased her sodium and sugar intake. She takes small doses of statins and blood pressure medication. In addition, she checks her blood pressure daily and exercises regularly. Five years ago, she created the Lincolnshire Vegan No-Oil Cooking Club and has been teaching plant-based cooking classes. In 2018, she became a board member of the Plant Based Nutrition Movement.
"If you have heart disease, life is more important than a cheeseburger," Shrallow says. "It's more important to be here with your friends and family. Since becoming vegan, I've had much more energy, I've never felt sluggish, and I can eat all the great food I want and never gain a pound."
How to go green — one veggie at a time
Williams makes an effort with every patient to talk about the benefits of a plant-based diet. But he knows that some patients might not be able to give up meat cold turkey. Here's some advice he gives on how to make the change:
- Make small adjustments: Try a Meatless Monday, Williams says. "There are lots of ways to transition into a plant-based diet, including many popular brands of texturized vegetable protein products."
- Get creative with recipes: He likes to play a game with patients called, "Vegan Blank." He asks a patient to tell them their favorite food — chicken, fish, shrimp — and he plugs it into Google and puts the word "vegan" in front of it. The only times he’s been stumped? Armadillo, rabbit and beer.
- Watch a movie for inspiration: He's been interviewed in several movies about cardiac health, including Eating You Alive and What the Health. He also makes a brief cameo in the documentary, The Game Changers, about the strongest man in the world, who is a vegan. "The largest land mammals and dinosaurs never ate animal-based protein," Williams says. "The body is capable of taking amino acids and turning it into muscles. When a giraffe has his head in the trees — he's not looking to eat eggs, he's eating leaves."