Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Esselstyn diet and my family

I've been a vegetarian since I was a teenager (over half my lifetime), and was even mildy vegan for about five years. I'm the only vegetarian in my family, including extended. Actually, most of my immediate family are pretty big carnivores. At least one of my sisters goes to BaconFest religiously, and my dad's been on and off Atkins for 10 years or so.

That's probably why it's my dad who's the protagonist of this story. Three months ago when he had his check-up with the family doctor, he said to me, "I think Dr. Lee wants me to... be vegan."

Me: (laughs uproariously)

Dad: That's not exactly what he said. He said... I forget, something about...

Me: Plant-based diet?

Dad: Yes! That's it! He was telling me about this book, where the author managed to cure heart disease in these deathbed patients. He said I should at least try to adopt some recipes from there.

Me: So, are you going to do it?

Dad: Well, I guess I'll read the book.

I was so tickled I ordered it for him on Amazon out of my own underemployed pocket. He got the book a few days later, and when went to Subway for lunch that afternoon, he got a vegan sandwich. And that was that. He was on the diet.

Conversations over the following week went like this:

Me: So, the doctor told Dad to go vegan.


Me: No, dude. He's doing it.

And he was. My dad's an engineer, and he likes all-or-nothing, black-and-white problems and solutions. The book convinced him, so he went all the way with it.

The Esselstyn diet is basically a vegan, extreme-low-fat diet. You can't have any meat, dairy, or eggs (I think a little honey is OK, so that kind of depends on your definition of vegan), of course. On top of that, no oils, not even to cook in. Furthermore, no nuts (except walnuts in moderation), no avocados, no coconut--you're even supposed to keep tofu to a minimum, as it has too much fat. And of course, no sugar or refined flours. He can have a little maple syrup, agave, and I think even Splenda might be ok. But not sugar and only whole grain breads and pastas.

My mom could happily have been vegetarian, maybe even vegan, but she was irate over the no oil thing. She loves her olive oil, and could not conceive of cooking without it. As for me, I was in 7th heaven. I live with my parents at the moment (moving away in a little over a week), and this meant that I was going to have healthy, vegan home-cooked meals every day. I threatened to never move out if this kept up!

We started out by using recipes in Esselstyn's book, which included both hits and misses. My parents discovered that they love portabella burgers on the grill. I used to not be a fan, but when I saw that a portabella cap is only 20 calories, I decided to convert from veggie burgers. (Also an influence in this conversion: Epic Burger. Lord, their portabella is fantastic. Probably has oil or something so not on the diet. Plus I like the epic sauce, which is not vegan. But it's so good I don't even need fries with it.) Other recipes were disappointing. My mom was frustrated with the cookbook (it is at times horribly vague), so for Father's Day my dad got The Happy Herbivore, a low-fat vegan cookbook. This one is definitely better. Still hits and misses, and generously padded with food porn (glamor shots of the dishes), but a very good selection of recipes. It's not as strict as Esselstyn, as many of the recipes do contain tofu and the like, but close enough.

Veggie skewers off the grill
 My mom does most of the cooking, and she's getting used to it. She has a few recipes that are her favorites, but I keep prodding her to try new ones. I've done a bit of cooking myself, which is generally not the way I like to spend my time, but it's kind of fun and relaxing when I get around to it.

Today was the day that my dad got his blood work results back for his three-month check-up. Not only did he lose 33 pounds (and his blood sugar was drastically lowered, which is important 'cause he's borderline diabetic), but his cholesterol dropped from 180 (it was over 200 before he started taking medication) to 119. It came up highlighted on the results sheet as "dangerously low" (not because it's dangerous to have low cholesterol, but because it could have been an indication of some other problem). The doctor hadn't known my dad had gone through with the diet, and his mind was just blown. My dad said the doc was literally laughing looking at the results. I guess my dad was the first patient who had actually followed the diet to the letter (except one other guy who was much healthier so his results weren't as steep), and it just served as a confirmation that the author's theories worked.

So the doctor took my dad off of two of his medications, and lowered two others. Not bad for three months!

As for the rest of us: my mom and I have been sort of doing the diet in solidarity, but not strictly. My mom likes her oil and goes nuts for Amy's No-Cheese pizza (a staple from my vegan days--god, so good), and I like to swing by Starbucks for a frappucino (with whip!) once in awhile. But for meals we've been pretty good. My mom, who weighs about the same as me (but is shorter, and, well, older), had lost 8 pounds last time I checked (could be more by now). And I've actually lost a few pounds myself. Which is hard for an already fit (and already vegetarian) young woman to do.

I guess if there's anything I've gotten out of this it's that, when you're preparing your own food, you really don't need oil. We cook most things in vegetable broth, and it's fine and saves us a ton of calories. Also, you can make guacamole out of peas instead of avocados, and it's almost as good. Also, even though I don't run anymore or exercise as much as I used to, I can eat plenty of carbs and still lose weight.

Overall, this diet is way too strict for most people. Eating out is nearly impossible (we've found decent approximations of diet-friendly food at Panera, Potbelly, and Ruby Tuesday), so you pretty much have to love cooking. If you just want to lose weight, there are much easier ways to do it. But if your concern is heart disease, in our experience, this diet WORKS.

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