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Rx in the City 2011
Vegging Out

Needless heart surgery? Houston doctor argues that a plant-based diet works better than a bypass

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If it could save your life, could you detox your body with a minimally-processed whole food plant-based diet? Photo by Joel Luks
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Angiograms. Angioplasty and cardiac stents. Bypass surgeries.

These are a few of the invasive medical procedures that have the ability to save lives, if administered appropriately. A new study co-authored by Dr. Gregory J. Dehmer, a professor of medicine at Texas A&M University, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association scrutinized stents, finding that 15 percent of 600,000 angioplasties were unwarranted or appeared to lack medical benefit though.

At a price tag of $20,000 per procedure, this discrepancy comes at a huge cost to health care providers. In 2009, health care costs in the United States reached $2.5 trillion.

Each year, 300,000 people in the U.S. undergo bypass surgery using another vein or artery in the body, though a new technology expected to be widely available in 2013 will be able to simulate human blood vessels. In 2007, the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center performed 6,000 procedures in the catheterization and electrophysiology labs, including 1,500 stents and 600 coronary artery bypass cases, and more than 25,000 imaging procedures. 

The numbers are impressive, the technologies, overwhelming. But they also speak of a larger issue: Desensitization. The public is accustomed to these therapies as everyday normal practice, forgetting that cracking chests open, putting foreign objects and replacing organs are radical techniques.

At the Houston Cardiac Association, Dr. Baxter Montgomery is going back to basics to help his patients avoid, when possible, many of these procedures while reversing chronic illnesses that plague those on the Standard American Diet.

Walking into Dr. Montgomery's office is, in a way, like walking into any heart health center. Calming blue walls with matching floor decorative inserts, the required fish tank and a murmuring water fountain inscribed with "From illness to recovery, from recovery to wellness, from wellness to fitness."

But touring the facilities, you also encounter a health restaurant and a workout area that are part of Montgomery's heart and wellness strategy.

"My thinking on nutrition has evolved during medical practice," he explains. "I have a firm belief that the nature of the majority of chronic illnesses are related to bad, poisonous food. We can talk about lack of exercise, genetics, stress, but I would argue that 90 percent of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, insomnia, even lupus, are a direct result of nutritional imbalances in our bodies."

His journey to minimally-processed whole foods plant-based diet advocacy was gradual, triggered by first looking at his own declining health in his 30s, (he suffered from high LDL cholesterol), then seeing his mother suffer from benign brain tumors, liver failure and a series of long hospitalizations.

"When an 86-year-old woman suffering from congestive heart failure — her heart pumping at 15 to 25 percent, bed-ridden and on 15 medications — improves dramatically over three weeks, you can't ignore the results minimally-processed plant-based nutrition therapies achieve," Montgomery says. "Her heart improved, pumping normally at 50 to 60 percent, she was able to walk and talk and reduced her medications down to three."

For many, it's a miraculous transformation. But Montgomery believes the body's natural inclination is to heal itself when fueled properly.

His medical philosophy is similar to Dr. Neal Barnard, health advocate, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute; and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., associated with the Cleveland Clinic and featured in the film Forks Over Knives

"It may seem radical to consider foods like meat — I prefer the term dead animal flesh — and it's derivatives including dairy, poison, " Montgomery says. "By definition, poison destroys life or impairs health. It may not kill you right away, but it can negatively affect brain functions, body functions, premature aging, aches and pains. That seems the norm nowadays. So it takes someone to step out and say what's right, even if it seems radical."

He explains things in layman's terms. Think of a town where 40 percent of the people have strange cancers, a unique occurrence outside all other cities. You would be tempted to look at differentiating factors like water supply, diet, anything that gets inside the resident's bodies. That's practically the United States when compared to the rest of the world.

Where the Standard American Diet has began to infiltrate international food cultures, chronic illnesses are on the rise.

"Disease doesn't begin when a medical test is abnormal," Montgomery says. "It begins before, and it begins with behavior."

Dr. Montgomery's list of consumables to avoid:

  • All forms of animal flesh including beef, pork, poultry, fish and seafood.
  • All processed foods including highly refined sugars, flours, chemical dyes and preservatives.
  • Plant-based foods that have been altered; Okra may be good, but battered and deep-fried alters its nutritional content.
  • Certain medications are good initially, though long term may be harmful.

"I am not anti-medicine," Montgomery says. "I am anti-ignoring the best possible treatment or cure, whatever that may be. The best information to date is whole food plant-based nutrition. Most of what we do in medicine is treat the side-effects of the bad foods we eat. We may think these foods are benign, they are not."

He has also created a taxonomy system for plant-based foods using the glycemic index and nutritional density of foods. During his 33-day Nutritional Boot Camp, participants can learn how to detox using a diet of raw fruits and vegetables, green juices and superfoods.

The boot camp begins with individual tests to measure a participant's condition, five lectures, weekly food demos, a supermarket shopping trip, weekly group sessions and final tests to assess improvement. 

Testimonials — which, by nature, should be treated with some healthy skepticism — range from losing 30 pounds, ending dependency on medication, even saving a man from amputation due to diabetes complications.

A typical eating day under Montgomery's plan may begin with a smoothie, move to a lunch consisting of a salad, dehydrated corn chips and guacamole, and finish with raw chili, coconut and nori wraps for dinner.

Listen to the story of patient Sheila Lewis:

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