Bill Clinton is one of the most famous exponents of the “China” diet; a strict plant-based low-fat diet, free of dairy or meat, that claims that to naturally reverse coronary disease. Clinton underwent bypass surgery in 2004 and in 2010 had stents inserted to hold open his clogged coronary arteries.
“I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit. I drink a protein supplement every morning – no dairy, I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder so I get the protein for the day when I start the day up.”
In the process, he had lost 24 lbs. Clinton went on the diet because he said research had indicated that more than four out of five people who keep to the plant-based diet experience a dramatic improvement in arterial blockages, cholesterol levels and coronary calcium deposits.
Clinton’s diet is based on the book, The China Study, written by Professor Colin Campbell, a Cornell University academic who studied diets, lifestyle and disease in 2,800 counties across China and Taiwan, and concluded that plant-based diets dramatically and rapidly reduce heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity.
Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn, two prominent US doctors have developed Campbell’s ideas.
Dr Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California who has long promoted a plant-based diet combined with yoga, meditation, stress management and exercise to reverse heart disease, has gave medical advice to Clinton.
“Our studies show that simple changes in diet and lifestyle can have a powerful effect not only in preventing disease but can reverse even severe coronary disease,” he says.
Mikhail Kosiborod, visiting cardiologist at the Heart Health Centre Cayman says, “Research suggests that intensive lifestyle changes (including diet and exercise) may help slow the progression of atherosclerosis in heart arteries (coronary artery disease).Arterial blockages are due to build up of plaque that is made up of cholesterol, fat, and calcium, among other things. Plaque can build inside the blood vessel walls. This process is called atherosclerosis. This process can lead to narrowing of blood vessels, causing symptoms such as chest pain (angina) and shortness of breath. It can also lead to serious complications, including heart attack and stroke.” He goes on to explain the different types of risk factors. “Risk factors leading to atherosclerosis include those that we cannot control (such as age, gender, family history/ genetic makeup), as well as those that can be modified (blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle).”
He is cautious that a diet could actually reverse heart disease, “A choice of a specific diet for someone diagnosed with coronary artery disease is somewhat controversial. Common-sense approach would be a low-calorie diet that is low in animal fat, and emphasizes lean protein and high fibre foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grain) – and is coupled with physically active lifestyle to maintain healthy weight. Such lifestyle intervention may decrease inflammation inside the blood vessel walls. This could lower the risk of plaque rupture (which is typically what causes of a heart attack).” He goes on to say that if patients already have established coronary artery disease, or are at high risk for it they are treated with cholesterol-lowering medications (called statins)that been shown to stabilize plaques and reduce the risk of heart attack
Nutritionist Andrea Hill says that a diet like this can be very beneficial because it sticks to rules Mother Nature intended us to keep: whole, unprocessed foods, naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. She says dairy foods should be enjoyed in moderation because of the saturated fat . “The saturated fat content of dairy products seem to be the contributing link to heart disease,” Hill says, “Just 1 ounce of cheese supplies 3 teaspoons of butterfat – all of which is saturated.”
Clinton’s diet has been criticised by some dietitians and nutritionists as too radical and lacking balance. Hill says a diet like this does need careful planning to ensure you are getting all the nutrition you need. She suggests if you are replacing animal protein go for legumes, (black beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, navy beans, et cetera) or tofu. With alternate dairy products like rice, soy, almond, hemp, or coconut make sure they are “calcium-fortified.”
The China Study
The China Study was based on a research project which took place over a period of 20 years on millions of Chinese residents. The project was conducted by Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine.
The research revealed associations between diet and disease. People who ate the most animal foods were the most likely to develop chronic diseases.
The more animal protein people ate, the higher the risk of getting breast, prostate, and bowel cancers, coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, auto-immune disease, obesity, degenerative brain disease, and macular degeneration.
The China Study also found that people with the highest blood cholesterol levels had the highest risk for disease, and those with the lowest blood cholesterol levels had the lowest risks. Western” diseases correlated to concentration of blood cholesterol
The China Study included a comparison of the prevalence of Western diseases (coronary heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, and cancers of the colon, lung, breast, brain, stomach and liver) in each county. It was based on diet and lifestyle variables, and found that one of the strongest predictors of Western diseases was blood cholesterol with a statistical significance level equal to or exceeding 99.9 percent certainty.
The study linked lower blood cholesterol levels to lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
As blood cholesterol levels decreased from 170 mg/dl to 90 mg/dl, cancers of the liver, rectum, colon, lung, breast, leukemia, brain, stomach and esophagus (throat) decreased.
Rates for some cancers varied by a factor of 100 from those counties with the highest rates to the counties with the lowest rates.
The authors write that “as blood cholesterol levels in rural China rose in certain counties the incidence of ‘Western’ diseases also increased. What made this so surprising was that Chinese levels were far lower than we had expected. The average level of blood cholesterol was only 127 mg/dl, which is almost 100 points less than the American average (215 mg/dl). …Some counties had average levels as low as 94 mg/dl. …For two groups of about twenty-five women in the inner part of China, average blood cholesterol was at the amazingly low level of 80 mg/dl.”
Their studies found that animal protein increased blood cholesterol levels and plant protein helped to reduce the amount of cholesterol the body produced.
The rural Chinese eat about 10% of their calories from protein, but only about 10% of it is animal protein. That means about 1% of the calories in a typical Chinese diet come from animal protein.
The average Westerner eats about 15% of calories from protein, and 80% of the protein is from animals. That means about 12% of the calories in the typical Western diet are from animal protein.