I have had high cholesterol my entire adult life. Ever since my father passed away of a heart attack almost eight years ago at the age of 59, I have felt that my clock was ticking. None of my grandparents lived to see their 80s. No matter my diet, healthy weight or how much I exercised, my total cholesterol has lived in the mid to upper 200s and my LDL has consistently been well over 100.
About six weeks ago, my total cholesterol measured 296 and LDL was 201. For me, this was utterly depressing. My family felt it was due time to discuss going on a statin. I have resisted this recommendation from different doctors for well over a decade due to fear of side effects. Historically, I experience side effects from just about any medicine. But, I was starting to think I would have no choice.
Discussing all of this with my wonderful friend, Carol Dengel, I knew what she would have to say. She has been espousing the benefits of a 100% plant-based diet for a couple of years and I’ve been dismissing the concept.
I already eat a ton of veggies and fruits. I rarely have red meat. I eat salmon and lean poultry. I have olive oil, coconut oil and other healthy fats. I haven’t had any dairy for almost 20 years due to an intolerance. My body doesn’t seem to tolerate gluten so I already gave that up. Even gluten-free grains make me bloat. I don’t want to have to eat a lot of them and I don’t want to gain weight. In the last six months, I have reduced my egg consumption (but the verdict has been going back and forth with eggs anyway). What about protein? What about having enough energy? I have been following a Paleo-style diet for the last few years and it has been simple enough to follow. At 5’3″ and 120 pounds, my weight is healthy and stable. I don’t like to cook. I don’t want to spend my time cooking. I want to feel healthy. I want to eat healthy foods. I want my lifestyle to be as convenient and simple as possible.
Just one lingering thought:
During college, I was a vegan. I was a junk food vegan but still a vegan. It was the only time my cholesterol numbers weren’t awful.
Carol said, “Then, Shanna, you know what you have to do.”
I felt so skeptical, resistant and frustrated but the idea of going on statins was enough to make me give it a go. Carol told me to watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives” which was on Netflix and quickly brought two books over to my house.
- “The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter’s 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds” by Rip Esselstyn
- “The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health” by T. Colin Campbell
I gravitated toward “The Engine 2 Diet” because it was a more accessible read. Some things were easy. No dairy. Check. No processed or refined foods. Done, I haven’t eaten white stuff for a long time. No meat. No big deal. No chicken, fish or eggs. Hmmm, not sure about this. No oil. Say what?!! How on earth? Say yes to vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. What about protein? What about healthy fat? What about having enough energy?
I decided to try the diet for six-weeks but also gave myself permission to abandon it if I felt tired, had digestive issues and / or gained weight.
Within a few days, I realized I was less tired. My brain felt clearer. Within three weeks, I had lost four pounds. I was pretty darn regular but my digestion was happy! It was also around this time that my husband, Matt, joined me on the eating plan. Matt participating took it to a whole new level.
I was actually excited about cooking. Matt and I spent a lot of time grocery shopping and cooking, but it was fun. Yes, we ate stir-fry and veggie burgers. But, we also enjoyed lasagna! We made desserts. The experience was transformative. I decided regardless of the numbers, this diet was right for me. I was hooked. And, I was tremendously hopeful.
Everyone in my life worried that I would be disappointed with my numbers. Family and friends alike kept mentioning genetics and that I might have to surrender to medicine. Hopes for a moderate decrease were realistic. But, I was hoping for a dramatic drop. I kept staring at page 19 in my copy of Rip’s book. This page listed participants’ before and after numbers in his 28-day study. Their results were dramatic and I wanted mine to be too.
I wept when I saw my new numbers. In six weeks, my total cholesterol dropped 120 points! My LDL dropped 110! I am within range! I know it sounds melodramatic but all I kept thinking was, “I am going to live. I am really going to live.” Heart disease is not inevitable. Barring any accidents, etc., I actually have a chance of living into my 80s and beyond. I have a chance of living well. It is an entirely new paradigm. It is life changing.
Before & After
I am not yet done. The books list heart attack-proof numbers as total cholesterol below 150 and LDL below 80. But, I am not far away! And, such a dramatic shift in six weeks is highly motivating. Starting October 1, Matt and I are taking an on-line cooking course through Forks Over Knives. Next on the docket will be a plant-based nutrition certificate through T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. It is so exciting and I’ll continue to share recipes and updates in future posts.
Before I sign off, I just have to say that I am so grateful to Carol Dengel for being so persistent and for sharing the wonderful resources of @forksoverknives @engine2diet and The China Study! Rip Esselstyn, Dr. T. Colin Campbell and all the contributors are such inspiring role models of health. It feels amazing to feel so hopeful! 🙂
Until next time,