I had the privilege of growing up during a period in which many sacred cows of nutrition became the focus of much scrutiny.
Many people may not remember, but not too long ago, (a) world-class athletes were sold on high protein/low carbohydrate diets; (b) coaches almost universally gave out salt tablets to athletes before games and practice; (c) it was not uncommon for professional teams to drink beer after games to rehydrate; (e) marathon runners–in order to “carbo load”–ate lots of sugary foods for the carbo-boost.
Today, those practices are sacrilege. While protein still gets a lot of hype–largely due to Atkins-mania–athletes are re-discovering the benefits of complex carbs. Salt tablets have given way to electrolyte replacers that go lighter on salt and provide more balance. Beer is now understood to be a DEHYDRATING agent. And marathon runners are looking more at gels (Hammer Gel, GU) and other products that provide complex carbohydrates prior to competition.
It is arguable that tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl–and 6-time Ironman champion Dave Scott–provided the impetus for that nutrition revolution.
Lendl and Navratilova embraced the high complex carbohydrate/low protein approach of Robert Haas, and became the most dominant players in their sports. Navratilova–once an overweight underachiever–became the fittest player in the history of women’s tennis; Lendl held the #1 spot on the men’s tour for a record 270 weeks; Scott was similar in his approach–although he was a strict vegetarian. He would win six Ironman World Championships. (An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim AND a 112-mile bike ride AND a full marathon of 26.2-miles.)
I followed a lot of that, and–after letting my fitness slip for a few years in the 1990s–embraced that path as I reached fitness levels I had not even realized in my high school days. I know many other athletes–especially marathoners and ultrarunners–who have taken this approach. For serious endurance athletes, it’s darn close to standard.
A couple months ago, an acquaintance of mine who is in the same spin class gave me a book to read that challenged him: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, by Caldwell Esselstyn, MD. In it, Esselstyn–a renowned former Cleveland Clinic surgeon, combat surgeon in Vietnam, and Olympic Gold Medalist (rowing, 1958)–makes the case that, with a vegan approach, heart disease can be prevented and even reversed. The thrust of his book was his own study–during his Cleveland Clinic days–of a set of cardiac patients who had advanced heart disease. He put them on a total plant-based (vegan) diet, and the success was overwhelming.
The study wasn’t perfect–there was no “control” group. But still, his results are nothing to sneeze at. He had my attention.
I also noticed that the forward for his book was written by T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study. A friend of mine–KM, who is a physician–recommended that I read that book as it is one of her favorites. So I read it, too.
I’ve had many conversations with KM over the years. And she, like Campbell, lamented that physicians do not get a lot of nutrition training. While she is not a vegan, she appreciates the principles that Campbell provides, and has adopted many of them.
Personally, I loathe most vegetarians, especially the envirowackos who are out to castigate anyone who eats chicken, fish, beef, or pork. I have no use for those types.
Still, I’m all about mitigating my controllable risks, and Campbell and Esselstyn provide a good case for anyone with known heart disease/cancer risks who wants to control those risks without medical approaches.
In part 2, I’ll discuss why I agree with Campbell and Esselstyn. (Hint: The “correlation does not equal causation” argument only goes so far.)