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What’s the right diet?

Marilyn Gleason

A few weeks ago, Ed left a front-page article from this very newspaper on the kitchen table, marked with an arrow in black magic marker and instructions for me to read it.

It concerned the retirement of a well-respected doctor from his practice at Glenwood Medial Associates, where he founded a program devoted to preventing heart attacks and strokes through a strict dietary regimen.

Dr. Greg Feinsinger was retiring, and at 73, he looked lean and vigorous in the accompanying photo.

Days later I saw a notice for a meeting with the good doctor in Carbondale on the topic.

It was an older crowd that filled the little conference room at the Third Street Center that Monday evening — mostly women who seemed very up on the minutiae of the latest dietary fads. The weekly sessions lend support to people attempting the rigors of the plant-based diet.

Despite his lanky build and healthy lifestyle, Ed worries about his arteries. And for good reason. He's reached the age when his peers are starting to drop. He's not ready to die. He loves tending his honeybees, carving arcs down Aspen Mountain, catching up with old friends and sweeping me into his arms at night. According to Dr. Feinsinger, heart disease and strokes together top the list of the most common causes of death. Next come cancer and complications related to hospitalization.

That's a double whammy — if the coronary doesn't kill you first, the ICU just might.

Dr. Feinsinger started by reminding us that medical schools give doctors no training in nutrition. It just isn't part of the program. Everyone knows you are what you eat, except the family doctor.

With his PowerPoint presentation, the doctor proceeded to outline the plant-based diet that promises to restore health, reduce weight and accomplish the impossible: reverse heart disease and plaque buildup in blood vessels. The approach builds on the work of Dean Ornish ("The Spectrum"), Colin Campbell ("The China Study") and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic ("Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease"), the brightest stars in this particular constellation.

The plant-based diet relies, unsurprisingly, mainly on eating a great variety and quantity of fresh vegetables and some fruit. Whole grains, nuts and whole foods are on the menu. Processed foods are not. A little caffeine is OK, praise all the saints.

At least as important is what the plant-based diet excludes. All animal products are off limits. No meat, no dairy, no eggs. Fish and fowl are no better than beef and other red meat by the strictest interpretation, although Dr. Feinsinger allowed for "cheating" with "a little fish." Oils are prohibited, including cooking oil, butter, and even health-trendy olive oil. Those contained in foods such as nuts and avocados are the only fats allowed. And no sugar.

The adherents praised the high-end greens and exotic imports they buy in plastic clamshells at City Market. Another devotee let loose at interminable length about how gassy all those vegetables make her. Before she finished describing her flatulence, everyone inched away a little, and I even thought I saw the doctor squirm.

It dawned on me as I listened that my locavore leanings and this latest formula for ultra-healthy eating are at odds. In shifting toward foods produced in my own community, back yard, region and state, I added eggs, milk and meat back into my loosely vegan way of eating.

I ordered pullets at Hy-Way Feed and started making omelettes and quiche and soufflés from their eggs. I found raw milk with the cream floating on top in glass gallon jugs and poured it over cereal for breakfast. The rich cream goes in my morning coffee with honey from our own beehives. In the summer, lambs frolicked in the orchard and grew fat on the alfalfa and deep grass so we could feast on their meat come winter. Colorado-made cheese sells at Osage Farm and City Market. For a while I knew where to find locally made sausage, and I'm in talks right now with a possible source for local beef processed in Paonia.

I wondered if I'd flunk the blood test at the next health fair. Guess what? My cholesterol levels barely budged.

Last week during a checkup, I asked Dr. Dewayne Niebur at Aspen Medical Care about this plant-based diet. He knew all about Dr. Feinsinger's "great work." His face lit up. He called Dr. Esselstyn's study, which plucked morbidly ill heart patients from the jaws of death "compelling," though he said it has yet to be replicated. (Who is going to repeat a study with no profit potential?)

But Dr. Niebur doubts the vegan diet is natural to humans because of vitamin B12 — required for healthy nerves and brains and found only in meat, fish, and dairy. Perhaps the healthiest diet is "pescadarian" — vegan plus fish.

"Happy free-range cows munching on grass while they gaze at the mountains also have higher levels of healthy omega 3 fats," he said, compared to the lethal omega 6.

He harbors doubts about the out-and-out prohibition on fats, which help us feel full and satisfied. As for butter, it beats those poisonous trans-fat and margarine substitutes. If you follow it from teat to churn to table, he suggests we might think of it as a whole food.

At home we're cutting back on hamburgers and potato chips and researching new vegetarian recipes. There is much goodness and truth in the plant-based approach.

Food fads come and go. One year it's all lean meat and protein, the next year it's carbs. Chocolate is in and coffee's out. I'm not a doctor, but I have taken a nutrition course. I've devised my own simple test: if my grandmother knew it as a child, it's probably real food that's safe to eat.

Every week I skim a pint or so of cream off my fresh raw milk. Maybe I'll try my hand at churning some butter.

You can learn about plant-based eating in "Forks Over Knives," a documentary film and companion book. Marilyn Gleason keeps it local on her Peach Valley farm and writes periodically for the Food pages. Send your responses and ideas to her at mg.news2@yahoo.com with the subject line "food."