Plant Strong – Weekend with the Esselstyns

Last weekend, I participated in an online health conference called, “A Primer into All Things Plants”. A good friend asked that I write about it, and I thank her for encouraging me to do so.

My journey towards plant-based nutrition began many years ago. In January 2003, I had deployed to Kuwait in preparation for the war in Iraq. While there, my mom underwent triple bypass surgery. I couldn’t be with her, but remember a friend helping me to find an international phone so that I could at least call the hospital to say hello.

My mom’s life was never the same. Though the surgery was successful, she could not return to work (as a physical therapist). She had to walk with a cane. Three years later, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One of the worst types, there is no treatment. There is only whatever time is left. By its nature, it is often found only during Stage 4. Twenty percent of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer patients survive the first year. My mom was not one of them. She was 64.

Cancer and heart disease were rampant on both sides of my family. I thought it was only a matter of time before I had one or both. If there was a way to keep me healthy and functional for as long as possible, I was determined to find it. So I started reading. I discovered, with maddening consistency, that food was often the most important aspect of any cancer treatment plan. Food, along with supportive relationships and exercise led to the best results. I started to change my diet, focusing on the standard mantras for “how to eat healthy”. (more vegetables, less fat)

In 2014, I found a book called, “Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease”.

Wait a minute. Did you catch that? It said, “PREVENTING” and “REVERSING”. Wasn’t heart disease mostly about your genes? Perhaps food played a role, but there wasn’t much anyone could do, was there? The book had me. I had to know more.

I discovered that the food was the primary contributor to heart disease. Genes played only a minor role. I discovered that Dr. Esselstyn had conducted a study in the 1980s, with heart patients whose cardiologists had told them to go home; there was nothing more they could do. The people from this study formed the basis for the documentary, Forks Over Knives. Twenty years later, they were dancing at their grandchildren’s weddings. Dr. Esselstyn had shown that you could not only prevent heart disease, you could actually reverse it.

So I made the switch to a plant-based diet. Note: I did not say, “vegan”. There is an important difference, because focusing on what we put IN our bodies is as important, if not more, than focusing on what we do not.

It has been a slow process. I took my time, taking out foods while trying new ones. I had fun cooking, always experimenting. Travel was difficult, as well as going out with friends. Sometimes, I just wanted a slice of pizza. Over the years, I’ve gradually become nearly 100% plant-based. I feel amazing.

Back to the conference this weekend – the Esselstyn family is passionate about sharing the “Plant Strong” message. They started a non-profit foundation; their son (Rip) and daughter (Jane) have gotten in on the action. They host conferences and week-long immersions. As part of the social distancing we’ve all experienced, they decided to offer an online conference, a “Primer into all things plants”. The video ran continuously all day Saturday and Sunday. It was so much fun!

The weekend included yoga and meditation each morning, followed by breakfast cooking classes (one day with Rip, one day with Jane and her mom, Ann).

There were lectures from Dr. Esselstyn (on heart disesase) and from a gastroenterologist who talked about gut health and food. I learned the importance of green leafy vegetables, and that chewing them (not in a smoothie) mattered. The chewing releases chemicals that combine in the digestive system to produce nitric oxide – which is the stuff that goes to work on healing the endothelial cells in our blood vessels (clearing the heart disease).

Then there were lunch cooking classes with Jane and Ann each day. They provided a grocery list ahead of time, so that you could participate if you wished. I didn’t choose to make the sweet potato quesadillas or the black bean burgers, but as you can tell from the pictures, they did inspire my afternoon cooking!

They had two personal stories, from those who had experienced extreme forms of disease (one addiction to drugs, in addition to obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease). Their journeys were inspiring, and I loved hearing them.

Rip led a label reading class, and Jane’s husband led a discussion (they had the chat function enabled, so people could participate with questions and comments) on common challenges people faced when switching to a plant-based diet. The most common challenge, that I hadn’t even thought about? Split households. How does one switch to a plant-based diet when the other person in the house continues to eat the Standard American Diet? They also discussed going out to restaurants, how to order food, traveling (domestically and internationally).

Throughout the weekend, I really enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm (and technical expertise) of the presenters. They are so passionate about this message. They are not selling pills or supplements. In fact, Dr. Esselstyn’s patients often do not take any prescription drugs while on his plan. If their doctors already have them on statins or blood pressure medication or similar, they are able to come off those eventually, as they heal the disease.

The weekend left me feeling re-inspired. Sometimes, it feels a bit lonely pursuing this lifestyle in the face of so much external pressure to eat a certain way. It felt wonderful to be with a (virtual) community of others eating this way. It felt so good to be able to talk about how much this has changed my life, and how appreciative I am for all the work they’ve done. The energy from Rip, Jane and the other presenters was infectious. Such a great weekend!

If you’re at all interested in any of the above, I do highly recommend checking out Dr. Esselstyn’s book, or either of the documentaries, Forks Over Knives or Gamechangers (both available on Netflix). Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you tomorrow! (still going to write about Israel, promise)


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