Top U.S. Cardiologist Spreads Vegan Message in India

By A.R. Hogan
Physicians for Responsible Medicine

Devi Shetty, M.D., a busy heart surgeon working in India, just planned to drop in to hear a renowned American physician speak about curing heart disease with diet. But what Dr. Shetty heard so impressed him, he not only stayed for the hour-long talk, but determined to help mend his patients' hearts this way as well.

Caldwell B. Esselstyn, M.D., (right) greets one of the many Indian physicians he met during his speaking tour.

Taking a vegetarian message to India might strike some as akin to shipping orange juice to Central Florida, but there's a real and urgent need, says that American physician, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D., a longtime Cleveland Clinic cardiologist and PCRM advisory board member. Even though half of India's 1 billion people are more or less vegetarian, urbanization and an increasing middle-class appetite for Western fast-food has contributed to "a real epidemic of heart disease and diabetes there," says Dr. Esselstyn, whose November 2000 trip marked his first visit to India. In 1998, India recorded 1.8 million heart attacks, a 50-percent increase from 1991. Without widespread dietary improvements, he told listeners, India's heart disease death toll will double by 2015, cancer rates could triple by 2025, and India may have a world-topping 57 million diabetes patients by 2025.

"Indians have been vegetarians for years, but sadly they drench their food in oils, and they have lots of dairy. And now there's this Western influence where you have McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken creeping in," Dr. Esselstyn says. "It's going to take lots of work to counter all that."

Even India's physicians, some of whom are getting heart disease in their 30s, fail to receive or relay high-quality nutritional advice, he says. "Indian heart disease patients are usually just told to eat less oil, less cheese. But in cholesterol reduction, moderation kills. That's not the answer. Think of heart disease as a brush fire," he continues. "Any time you pour dairy on the fire, oil on the fire, meat on the fire, you're literally pouring on gasoline. And we shouldn't be throwing even one thimbleful of gasoline on the fire."

During his three-week "Heart-Attack Proof Tour" through Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Calcutta, Dr. Esselstyn made 27 presentations to thousands of physicians and medical students. The press conducted numerous interviews, with the tour garnering coverage in The Times of India and other major newspapers. A special highlight was his visit to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, often called the "Harvard of India."

"I showed them all these pictures of reversal of artery blockages and explained that it worked because you get rid of all the dairy, you get rid of every drop of oil, you get rid of all the meat, anything with a face," he says.

Dr. Esselstyn, who ironically grew up on a New York cattle ranch, started his heart-disease reversal study in 1985. Some of his early patients, who had more or less been told to go home and die by their doctors after bypasses and angioplasties proved insufficient, are still around. His India journey follows up a similarly successful 1999 venture by PCRM president Neal D. Barnard, M.D.