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Nutritious remedies for heart health
Nutritious remedies for heart health

The beginning of the year is always a time for resolutions, and Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento physician Rajiv Misquitta, MD, has one for you that is very timely considering February is American Heart Month.

Adopt a plant-based diet—basically, be vegan.

That’s what Dr. Misquitta did six years ago after he had a heart attack followed by a five-way bypass surgery four months later. He was just 40 and in reasonably good health.

The Internal Medicine doctor was discouraged that medicine could not completely keep his health problems at bay, so he made what many people might consider a drastic move: He eliminated all meat, dairy, and added fat, such as olive oil and nuts, from his diet. That decision was based on research suggesting a healthy lifestyle can reverse heart disease. He hasn’t had any heart problems since starting his new diet.

Wanting to share what he learned and help others make healthy changes, Dr. Misquitta and his wife, Cathi, wrote “Healthy Heart, Healthy Planet: Delicious Plant-Based Recipes and Tips to Reduce Heart Disease, Lose Weight and Preserve the Environment.”

Dr. Misquitta laid out the science, and his wife, a pharmacist and talented cook, contributed the recipes, which Dr. Misquitta describes as plant-based, low-fat, flavorful, and quick to prepare.

Dr. Misquitta discussed the obstacles to a meatless diet, the environmental implications of a plant-based diet, and why nutrition is often overlooked as a remedy for heart disease.

  • Did you uncover anything surprising in your research on heart disease?

Yes, I found it surprising that we’ve known about the powerful impact of a good lifestyle in reversing heart disease for almost 30 years. Why isn’t a plant-based diet more widely used or prescribed? If this were a drug, it would be a blockbuster.

  • So why do you think nutrition is not more widely seen as medicine?

There’s not enough nutritional information in medical schools, although it’s getting better. Also, there’s no incentive for doctors to get patients to make lifestyle changes—I’m not talking about the Kaiser Permanente model, which does reward prevention. The model most everywhere in this country is fee for service, so it reimburses sickness. And the third reason may be the patients—some are unwilling to make these changes. Some people know that they need to do it, but they need inspiration and the tools to make changes, and that’s what we set out to do with this book.

  • What do you say to people who consider completely eliminating meat too drastic?

Eating meat is part of American culture; we consume more meat than any other country, so I understand that it’s difficult to give that up. In our book, we advocate starting small, such as one meal a day without meat, then one day a week. It does work if you start slow. The first few weeks are going to be the most challenging. But after two months of not having meat, people say those cravings for meat disappear.

We have medicines for dealing with health problems, but that’s not what keeps us healthy. What makes us healthy are the little things we do and how we live.

  • Tell us more about the environmental implications of a plant-based diet.

In the process of doing research on a more plant-based diet, I came across research about the environmental implications of eliminating meat and animal products; vegetarian diets take far less energy, water, and land to produce. It can make a significant environmental impact.

A portion of the book proceeds will go to the Plantrician Project and the Sierra Club. The Plantrician Project educates, equips, and empowers physicians and health care practitioners with knowledge about the benefits of plant-based nutrition.

  • We’ve talked a lot about lifestyle. But what role do genetics play in your health?

They do play a role. But your genes are not everything and just because there is a genetic predisposition, that doesn’t mean it will be expressed. You are in control of your nutrition and activity level, and those two things can change your health. I hope that message can empower people to make a change.

(Interview by Elizabeth Schainbaum)