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This article is part of a series on whole food, plant-based (WFPB) nutrition. For related topics, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom Topics A-Z.

It is widely believed that the major chronic diseases of our day are caused by our genes and by environmental factors outside of our control and that these health problems automatically come with aging, that they are an inevitable part of getting older. Thankfully, this is true for only a small fraction of the serious health problems we experience. Most of our physical ills are caused by things we are doing, particularly the foods we are eating.[1] While it can be difficult and even painful to acknowledge that we may be the cause of our own suffering, this is good news because it means we aren’t victims! There is so much we can do to make a dramatic impact on our health.

This is certainly true of the topic of today’s article: heart disease. In fact, the world’s leading authority on the prevention and reversal of heart disease, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., calls heart disease a “toothless paper tiger” because it is so readily prevented and resolved through diet alone.[2] Like diseases caused by Salmonella and E. coli, heart disease is a “food-borne illness”; it is caused by eating foods that are harming us. No matter how severe the case may be, a proper diet can stop the progression of most forms of this disease within a very short time. The body responds so readily to dietary treatment that medical experts like Dr. Esselstyn do not recommend any type of surgery, stents, or other heart procedures unless it is a life and death situation. This opinion is also shared by expert cardiologists from Boston, Hartford, Houston, Stanford, San Diego, Seattle and Cleveland.[3]

Why Should We Care?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Over 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year. That accounts for 1 out of every 4 deaths in the United States.[4] Heart disease kills roughly the same number of people in the US as cancer, lower respiratory diseases (including pneumonia), and accidents combined.[5] Unfortunately the first symptom of heart disease many people experience is a sudden heart attack, and too many of these people don’t survive even this first symptom. 50% of heart attack victims die within an hour.

Death is just part of the price we pay for this food-borne illness. Heart disease costs the United States over $200 billion each year in health care services, medications, and lost productivity.[6] This doesn’t even take into account the mental, emotional, and psychological suffering that goes with having this illness (or having a family member with this illness). Suffering has an important role in life, but like the lung cancer caused by tobacco, this type of suffering is largely optional.

Another reason we should care is that heart disease begins in childhood. Unlike countries where people eat healthier diets, fatty streaks in the arteries, which are the first stage of atherosclerosis, are found in 100% of kids in the US by age ten.[7] During the 15- to 34-year age span, “Fatty streaks and clinically significant raised lesions increase rapidly in prevalence and extent.”[8] While children generally do not die of heart disease, even young people in their 30’s and 40’s are dying of this illness that is nearly 100% preventable.

What’s the Cause?

Our Heavenly Father designed our bodies beautifully to support the critical functioning of our hearts. Even before birth, our hearts begin to beat and coordinate the movement of blood, providing oxygen and nutrients throughout the entire body. When we are healthy, there is nothing to impede this vital blood flow from moving freely and easily through an intricate series of arteries. The lining of our arteries, the endothelium, produces a special gas, nitric oxide, that ensures that the blood flows freely and easily so it can do its job.

Heart disease is not caused by old age. If we were to always eat the foods that are best for our bodies, our arteries would continue to be clean, strong, and healthy our entire lives, supplying our bodies and hearts with the needed oxygen and nutrients. In populations of the world past and present where the foods the people consumed were naturally healthy, heart disease (and all other cardiovascular disease) is virtually non-existent.[9]

Most heart disease is caused by damage to our coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood to the heart), including the endothelial cells. The damage is a result of the buildup of plaque (which are deposits of cholesterol and other substances) in the walls of the arteries. Over time, the plaque buildup inside the arteries causes them to narrow. This process, called atherosclerosis, partially blocks and can eventually totally block the blood flow to the heart. A sudden blockage can cause a heart attack. Even partial blockage makes it harder for blood to flow to the heart and the rest of the body. When the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood, it can cause chest pain or discomfort, called angina. Over time, this can lead to heart failure, a serious condition where the heart becomes weak and unable to efficiently pump blood.[10]

So what causes the plaque buildup in our arteries? The answer is simple: it’s the food! God designed our bodies to function beautifully on the wholesome foods He created for us: unrefined fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. Unfortunately, the foods that make up the majority of our diet in Western countries are the foods that harm us: meat, dairy, excess fat, oils, sugar, and processed foods. Rather than making our bodies stronger and healthier, these foods do active damage to our bodies. They cause the cholesterol in our blood to rise and then accumulate in the walls of our arteries. This accumulation triggers an inflammatory response leading to the creation of atherosclerotic plaques. These plaques reduce blood flow and have the potential to rupture and totally shut off blood flow to a part of our heart, killing that part of the heart and possibly killing us as well.[11]

What’s the Cure?

Heavenly Father did more than design our bodies so that they function beautifully when we are well. Our bodies are also designed to be able to heal themselves. In fact, there is not a moment of the day when our bodies are not working hard to heal themselves of anything that is less than optimal. Fortunately, this healing function can work spectacularly well when it comes to our hearts. The problem is that even this marvelous health machine can’t work faster than our hands are able to put food into our mouths.

Picture the mess that would occur if someone left the water running in a sink that was plugged up. Soon the water would spill over the sink and onto the floor. Try as you might to soak up the water with all the towels in the house, as long as the water was running, it would continue to spill out onto the floor. Your only chance to get the situation completely under control is to turn off the tap.

Let’s apply this analogy to the treatment of heart disease. Heart procedures like stents and bypass surgery are like using towels to mop up the mess made by the running water. Heart procedures address the symptoms of heart disease but not the cause. Heart disease is not caused by a deficiency of statins or stents; it is caused by the unhealthy foods we put into our bodies. Switching from unhealthy to healthy foods is like turning off the tap water; it gets at the root of the problem and so is able to resolve the issue.

While most people know that eating a “healthier diet” improves heart function and decreases the risk of heart disease, most people do not realize that if you totally eliminate all the foods that cause damage to the arteries, you do much more than “reduce” your chance of heart disease—you virtually eliminate the risk.

The foods that cause the plaque to buildup in our arteries come from two major sources: animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs) and processed foods (sugar, oil, and other refined foods). If we consume wholesome foods such as unrefined fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, we support the body’s work to repair itself. The narrowed arteries can become wider, and more important, whatever buildup is happening inside the arteries stops and stabilizes so that it cannot rupture and block the arteries in the future.

Switching to a completely whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet is the key to prevention and reversal of heart disease. To date, there are over 200 people with heart disease documented in the scientific literature who have tried this remedy. Of all the people who were completely compliant, none experienced progression in the disease.[12] Instead, all were substantially benefited and cured in the sense that their quality of life was no longer a victim of this disease.

With heart disease, food is the cause and food is the cure! If you would rather eat differently than suffer from this debilitating and ultimately lethal disease, I invite you to study the resources below.

Top Resources for Learning More

The best source of information on heart disease and the use of a WFPB diet to prevent and reverse it is Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. There are also many free resources on-line. Here are my top picks on heart disease:

For more resources on heart disease, including excellent free presentations by Dr. Esselstyn, see the topic guide for “Heart disease” found on Discovering the Word of Wisdom Topics A-Z.

Success Stories

There are hundreds of success stories of people who have stopped the progression of heart disease by switching to a WFPB diet. Here I feature three of them.

  • “The doctor was giddy about my results.” Dave Hansen is a Latter-day Saint from California. After multiple medical procedures to address heart disease, a new cardiologist helped Dave realize these procedures would never cure him of this disease. He advised the use of a whole food, plant-based diet. As he described the diet, Dave immediately thought of the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. He committed to the new lifestyle, which led to the end of the disease and the beginning of a whole new healthier life for Dave and his wife. (See also: More stories of Mormons adopting a WFPB diet to address heart disease.)
  • “A Plant-Based Diet Saved My Life.” After the insertion of eight stents, the doctor told Tricia Slimbarski that she’d have another cardiac event within six months and that there was “nothing” they could do to stop the progression of the disease. She cried for days then started researching “stopping the progression of coronary artery disease” and discovered that many people are stopping the progression of this disease through going WFPB. She totally changed her diet in one day and stopped not only the progression of the heart disease but also her diabetes and arthritis. (See also: Other success stories posted by Dr. Esselstyn.)
  • “Two Heart Attacks at Age 29: A Story That Ends Well.” Ivan Mejia suffered two heart attacks before he was even 30 years old. He was frightened he would never see 50 or watch his boys grow up. Fortunately his nurse introduced him to the documentary Forks Over Knives that describes the power of whole food, plant-based nutrition. After changing his diet, he lost 63 pounds and his cholesterol dropped 177 points. He loves the new food and his newfound energy and health. (See also: Heart Health Success Stories.)

Getting Started

For help getting started on a healthy whole food, plant-based diet, see: “Getting Started on a WFPB Word of Wisdom Diet.”

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Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”



[1] Michael Greger, “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death,” (July 26, 2012).

[2] Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure (New York: Avery, 2007).

[3] Caldwell B. Esselstyn, “What would you say to someone considering a stent or other surgical procedure or drug therapy, to treat their heart disease?” (accessed May 11, 2017).

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart Disease Facts,” (accessed May 11, 2017).

[5] “Costs & Consequences,” (accessed May 11, 2017).

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart Disease Fact Sheet,” (accessed May 11, 2017).

[7] Michael Greger, “Heart Disease Starts in Childhood,” (September 23, 2013).

[8] Jack P. Strong, et al. “Prevalence and Extent of Atherosclerosis in Adolescents and Young Adults: Implications for Prevention From the Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth Study,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 281, no. 8 (1999): 727-735.

[9] Norman J. Temple and Denis P. Burkitt (editors), Western Diseases: Their Dietary Prevention and Reversibility (Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press, 1994).

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Coronary Artery Disease (CAD),” (accessed May 11, 2017).

[11] Michael Greger, “How to Prevent a Heart Attack,” (March 28, 2017).

[12] See Note 2 above and also Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., et al., “A Way to Reverse CAD?” The Journal of Family Practice 63, no. 7 (July 2014): 356–364. Note: a few individuals in these studies did continue to experience some heart problems after switching to the new diet, but in every case these individuals were not fully compliant with the new diet.