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The Health Science Podcast | Episode 069. | February 29, 2024
069: Healthcare Shake-Up: Rethinking Nutrition’s Role in Heart Health with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
069: Healthcare Shake-Up: Rethinking Nutrition’s Role in Heart Health with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn

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In the realm of preventive medicine, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn stands as a prominent figure, leading the charge in advocating for a whole plant food diet to prevent and reverse heart disease. Discover Dr. Esselstyn’s groundbreaking work, while exploring his journey, research, and the transformative impact of his approach.

The Early Years: Pioneering Preventive Cardiology

Dr. Esselstyn’s illustrious career began with iconic research as the director of the Heart Disease Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic. His involvement in pioneering studies, notably featured in the bestselling book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” laid the foundation for a revolutionary approach to cardiovascular health.

A Renaissance Man in Medicine

Beyond his contributions to cardiology, Dr. Esselstyn’s diverse background adds layers to his medical persona. An Olympic gold medalist in rowing in the 1950s and a decorated war veteran receiving the Bronze Star during the Vietnam War, he brings a unique perspective to the world of health and wellness. These experiences, coupled with familial connections to luminaries in medicine, set the stage for his lifelong commitment to transformative healthcare practices.

The Plant-Based Revelation

In the late 1970s, Dr. Esselstyn’s perspective evolved as he discovered the powerful connection between diet and health. The realization that a low-fat, whole food, plant-based diet could prevent and reverse heart disease became the cornerstone of his approach. This revelation marked the beginning of his journey into advocating for a lifestyle transformation that extended beyond cardiovascular health.

Landmark Studies: Validating the Plant-Based Approach

Dr. Esselstyn’s dedication to proving the efficacy of a plant-based diet manifested in his landmark studies. The first study, encompassing 24 patients, revealed unprecedented results — no cardiac events occurred over the 12-year follow-up. Subsequent larger studies with 200 patients further validated the effectiveness of his approach, sparking interest and skepticism within the medical community.

Navigating Criticisms: A Commitment to Evidence-Based Practice

Dr. Esselstyn’s revolutionary approach faced its share of skepticism, with critics questioning study size and design. However, his response highlighted the practical challenges of conducting extensive studies while emphasizing the significance of the observed outcomes. Despite these challenges, his work has inspired a growing movement toward lifestyle-centric interventions for cardiovascular health.

The Essence of Change: Transforming Lifestyle for Heart Health

Central to Dr. Esselstyn’s methodology is the elimination of foods that harm the endothelial lining of arteries, coupled with a plant-exclusive diet. He emphasizes the role of nitric oxide in preserving blood vessels and highlights the age-dependent decline in its production. Chewing green leafy vegetables emerges as a pivotal daily practice to restore nitric oxide and support endothelial health.

Empowering Patients through Education

Sharing anecdotes from patient interactions, Dr. Esselstyn sheds light on the common scenario where individuals are faced with recommendations for stents or bypasses. He advocates for educating patients on the alternatives, emphasizing that decisions regarding their health are ultimately in their hands. Dr. Esselstyn believes in presenting patients with a clear understanding of how their lifestyle choices contribute to their disease and, more importantly, how they can be the agents of change to reverse it.

The Nutritional Literacy Revolution: Educating for a Healthier Future

Moving beyond traditional cardiology approaches, Dr. Esselstyn outlines a seismic revolution in health that he envisions. This revolution, he asserts, will not come from new drugs or procedures but from a collective commitment to educating the public about lifestyle choices and nutritional literacy. He stresses the importance of respecting patients by dedicating time to them and providing comprehensive education on the causation of their illnesses.

The Plant-Based Prescription in Practice

Dr. Esselstyn’s plant-based prescription involves eliminating foods that harm endothelial cells, such as oils, animal proteins, dairy, sugary foods, and caffeine. He highlights the significance of green leafy vegetables in restoring nitric oxide production and advocates a diet rich in whole grains, legumes, and various colored vegetables. Additionally, he emphasizes the role of stress management and physical activity as complementary aspects of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Looking Towards the Future: A Legacy of Heart Health

As someone in their early nineties, Dr. Esselstyn attributes his longevity to a combination of regular exercise, a plant-based diet meticulously prepared by his wife, and a supportive circle of friends and family. His commitment to the National Health Association and participation in educational seminars reflects his dedication to spreading the message of a plant-based, heart-healthy lifestyle.

Inspiring a Heart-Healthy Future

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s lifelong dedication to advancing heart health through a plant-based approach stands as a beacon of hope in the medical landscape. From Olympic glory to revolutionary research, his journey reflects a commitment to challenging norms and empowering individuals to take control of their well-being. 

As the world grapples with rising cardiovascular disease rates, Dr. Esselstyn’s work remains a testament to the transformative power of lifestyle choices in promoting a heart-healthy future.

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Episode Highlights 

[00:00] Introduction. 

[02:30] Far reaching history includes Dr. Esselstyn Sr., JFK’s Medicare, and Lou Gehrig  

[05:00] Dr. Esselstyn becomes disillusioned with breast cancer solutions.

[06:30] The catalyst for Dr. Esselstyn’s heart health research.

[09:00] The research project that indicated what was to come.  

[13:35] Dr. Esselstyn is considered an enormous threat to the healthcare cash cow.  

[15:45] The power of nitric oxide in heart health.

[17:25] Foods that injure the heart and which are heart healthy.  

[21:00] Simple ways to get more nitric oxide.

[24:30] With food as the foundation, there are several ways up the mountain.

[27:00] Educating patients through a virtual training via the Cleveland Clinic. 

[30:00] What the NHA means to Dr. Esselstyn and his work. 

[31:30] Dr. Esselstyn’s key to living a healthy life into his 90s. 

About Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. 

Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. stands as a distinguished American physician, author, and former Olympic rowing champion, creating a legacy that transcends both the medical and athletic arenas.

Medical Career

As the director of the Heart Disease Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Esselstyn has become a stalwart advocate for preventive cardiology. His groundbreaking contributions have significantly impacted the field, focusing on the reversal of heart disease through transformative lifestyle changes.


In 2007, Dr. Esselstyn penned the influential book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” laying the foundation for a low-fat, whole foods, plant-based diet that excludes all animal products and oils. While garnering attention for its dietary principles, the book has not been without its share of criticism, particularly regarding its health claims.

Background and Olympic Glory

Born in New York City in 1933, Dr. Esselstyn inherited a rich medical legacy. His father, Dr. Caldwell Blakeman Esselstyn Sr., made significant contributions to medicine, playing a role in the establishment of Medicare and serving as the personal physician for the legendary Lou Gehrig. Dr. Esselstyn himself achieved Olympic gold in rowing during the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.

His academic journey led to an M.D. from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The union with Ann Crile, granddaughter of George Washington Crile, founder of the Cleveland Clinic, further solidifies his connection to a profound medical lineage.

Dietary Philosophy

Dr. Esselstyn’s dietary philosophy centers around a whole foods, plant-based approach, advocating for the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, and especially cruciferous vegetables. By excluding animal products and oils, he believes this dietary strategy holds the key to preventing coronary and cardiovascular diseases.

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s holistic approach to heart health seamlessly integrates his medical expertise, athletic achievements, and unwavering commitment to well-being through nutrition. His work continues to serve as a beacon, inspiring individuals on their journeys to healthier and more fulfilling lives.

About Dr. Frank Sabatino

As a recognized authority on the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, Dr. Frank Sabatino has cared for and inspired thousands of people for over 40 years. Dr. Sabatino has a PhD in cell biology and neuroendocrinology and has done extensive landmark research on calorie restriction, stress, and aging. He currently is on staff at the TrueNorth Health Foundation in Santa Rosa, CA, and serves as the Director of Health Education at the NHA.

Dr. Sabatino’s passion and life’s work include raising awareness about the benefits of whole-food, plant-exclusive nutrition (without added salt, oil, or sugar), health rejuvenation and stress management.

About NHA

The National Health Association (NHA), founded in 1948, is a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of a plant-based diet. The Association provides educational materials, educational events, and services to thousands of people around the world.

The mission of the National Health Association is to educate and empower individuals to understand that health results from healthful living. The NHA recognizes the integration of all aspects of health: personal, environmental, and social.

The NHA also provides travel experiences around the globe through the NHA Plant-Based Travel and cruise division.

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A unique benefit of the NHA Conference is the selection of two medical students who receive a full scholarship to the conference.

Contact Wanda Huberman for more information on how to apply for the scholarship.  [email protected]

NHA membership

For a very nominal investment, you can enjoy incredible benefits of the NHA membership.

Members of the NHA enjoy a subscription to the award-winning quarterly health journal, Health Science, access to the “Members Only” section of the NHA Website (which contains all 43 years of back issues of the magazine),  the ability to download for free many classic out of print eBooks on the history of the Natural Hygiene Movement, including Fasting Can Save Your Life and The Greatest Health Discovery, discounts on books, and early notice of the NHA events.

Only $35 a year for basic membership within the United States.

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