Vail Daily health feature: Diet or diagnosis?

Kim Fuller
Daily Correspondent
Bob Moroney adds ingredients into a juicing machine while making a mid-day snack in the kitchen of the Alpine Club in Arrowhead.
Justin McCarty | |

Related reads

“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, Ph.D.

“Whole,” by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.

“Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr.

“In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan

“The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle,” by Mike Anderson

“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 Starch Solution: Eat The Foods You Love, Regain Your Health, and Lose The Weight For Good!” by Dr. John McDougall

“Eat To Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program For Fast and Sustained Weight Loss,” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman

“Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes,” by Dr. Neal D. Barnard

“Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way To Health,” edited by Gene Stone

“Forks Over Knives — The Cookbook: Over 300 Recipes for Plant-Based Eating All Through The Year,” by Del Sroufe

Five years ago, local resident Bob Moroney had a reason to pay attention to nutrition. Upon his wife, Ruth, being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, the couple shifted their focus to research and education on the benefits of optimal health through a familiar premise: “You are what you eat.”

Moroney said at the time she was diagnosed, Ruth was an athlete and a teacher in the valley.

“We thought we were eating well, and were relatively conscious about our health and we were definitely not overweight,” he said. “Then, she got cancer.”

The doctor told Ruth she had six months to live. The inspiration from two books, “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D, and “The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle” by Mike Anderson, led the Moroneys to change their eating habits. Moroney calls it “conscious consumption” — it’s not vegetarian, it’s not vegan, it’s “nutritarian,” he said.

“There’s a movement going on, and it’s a grassroots effort across the country,” he explained. “It’s a consciousness that is being raised by the people — it’s not coming from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), or the established medical community.”

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“There’s a movement going on, and it’s a grassroots effort across the country,” he explained. “It’s a consciousness that is being raised by the people — it’s not coming from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), or the established medical community.”

There are some doctors, however, that are embracing the lifestyle methodology. Dr. Dennis Lipton, an internal medicine physician at Vail Valley Medical Center, said five years ago he also read T. Colin Campbell’s book on in-depth nutrition, and he said it really got him thinking.

“At that time I really started thinking about my patients,” Lipton explained. “There are people up here who are seemingly healthy and affluent, and they are coming in with chronic diseases. Even if people can afford the best medical care in the world, that still doesn’t save them from medical tragedies like cancer, strokes, diabetes and heart disease.”

After he read the book, Lipton said he instantly implemented the diet for himself and his family.

“I was already a vegetarian,” he said, “so it wasn’t much of a stretch to give up milk and eggs.”

Although Lipton has the option to prescribe a full range of medications, he said the plant-based diet option he offers to many of his patients is a good place to start for some.

“A lot of people already know they should be eating better, but they have more important things to do,” Lipton explained. “I suggest this diet for a lot of people who have medical problems that are about to interfere with their lives — people who are on the borderline of diabetes, for example, and people who have progressive artery disease and are headed toward a heart attack.

“This is when people are at that stage where there life is going to change anyway because they are about to have to go on medications and medical monitoring,” he continued. “Or they can choose to make a lifestyle change.”

Power in numbers

After receiving her initial 6-month prognosis, Ruth Moroney changed her diet and lived on for three years. She passed away two years ago, but Bob Moroney attributes her extended longevity to what he liked to call a “plant-strong” diet.

“I remember the surgeon telling us that the chemo was not working on her type of cancer,” Moroney shared. “Then she was discharged from hospice and got healthier — she lived two years longer than the six months they gave her.

“She was very strong,” he continued, “but I attribute a large portion of her added years to what food she was consuming.”

Moroney said he also noticed significant changes in his own well being. He lost 30 pounds in four months, and his total cholesterol (TC) dropped from 220 to 147 (measured in milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood). His low-density lipoprotein (LDL) blood levels dropped from 152 to 98.

In “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” a book by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., the internationally known surgeon, researcher and clinician at the Cleveland Clinic, explains how to focus needs to move to treating the cause of heart disease, rather than the symptoms.

Esselstyn argues that a plant-based, oil-free diet can not only prevent and stop the progression of heart disease, but also reverse its effects. The book claims individuals can become “heart attack proof” with a TC level of 150 or less and an LDL level of 80 or less. According to Esselstyn’s theory, Moroney has become heart attack proof by changing his diet to plant strong.

Dr. Al Bishop, owner of Bishop Orthodontics in Edwards, and his wife, Shirlene, changed their diet after Shirlene nearly died of a heart attack in 2011. Bishop said he was inspired by several books, including Esselstyn’s, and after three months on a plant-based diet, Shirlene’s cholesterol dropped from 214 to 107, and his dropped from 190 to 137.

“There’s a number of reasons why I think this diet is not embraced,” Bishop said. “People love the taste of the western diet, and really are addicted to it.

“You have to have something happen to you emotionally to get you to change what you’re doing in terms of your health,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t get a chance to change their diet because they die with the first symptom, which with heart disease can be sudden death.”

Young inspiration

This past spring, a Vail Mountain School senior was inspired to test the plant-based nutrition theories for a second semester senior project. Ellen Edgerton, now a freshman studying pre-med at California State University at Bakersfield, conducted a controlled study with 14 adults and six students.

Each participant in her study had blood drawn from a finger prick before they each started a whole foods nutritional program for five weeks. Edgerton said the nutrition program was based on the premise of both “The China Study” and “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” books. After five weeks of consuming only plant-based foods, each participant repeated the fingerpick test, and results were compiled from a Cholestech LDX Analyzer System.

“This study showed significant health changes for those involved in just five weeks,” Edgerton said. “Someone’s cholesterol dropped 77 points; out of 14 adults, six had a good drop in both TC and LDL, and four met the standards of becoming heart attack proof.”

Also, an InBody 320 Composition Analyzer was used to measure total body weight, total body water, total body fat and lean body mass, among other things. Edgerton’s study claims that at the end of the five-week period, total weight change ranged from losing 10.8 pounds, to gaining .5 pounds, with an average weight loss of 3.03 pounds. She stated that fat loss averaged 1.66 pounds, with one participant losing as much as 7.7 pounds.

The third section of Edgerton’s study involved posing questions to the participants regarding their sleeping ability, cognition changes, anger concerns, stress, levels, acne states, hunger satisfaction, and how easy or difficult is was to get used to a plant-based nutritional program.

“There were very few negative answers,” the study states. “Twenty percent of the respondents said they could follow a plant-based food regimen forever, with replied ranging down to one percent who said it would be extremely difficult. It is generally accepted that plant-based nutrition promotes weight loss, and encourages better sleeping conditions.”

To conclude her study, Edgerton references an idea from the documentary film “Forks Over Knives,” in that we as a society should start to pay more attention to the food we eat, rather than the medical miracles and deep dollars required to undue our own destruction.

“Some people say that adopting a plant-based nutritional program is too radical,” Edgerton states. “While others say it’s more radical to spend $100,000 to have your chest cut open, a vein taken out of your leg to be placed in your heart (a procedure called heart by-pass surgery), and while that is being done there’s a pretty good chance of dying!

‘What do you think?

Edgerton, now 18 years old, plays Division I volleyball for her university, and said she maintains an 80/20 balance when it comes to her own plant-eating loyalty.

“There’s a good balance you need to find, because it’s pretty strict,” she said. “It’s actually just brought all foods into my awareness and how it all can effect you. With this diet, I have noticed an increase in my focusing ability, my soreness after practice isn’t as bad and my shin splints have gone away. I feel less tired and groggy, and just more lively overall.”

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