Digging Deeper

The Esselstyns' Devotion to the Plant-Based Diet

I study the I am driving away from the Esselstyns’ home, a mid-century modern house splayed out on a large plot in Pepper Pike. I am still getting taste sensations from the lunch I just had—a bit of ginger, wasabi (“not like the kind you get at restaurants”), pumpkin seeds from tree bark dessert, cilantro from a kale rollup. I’ve just had an entirely plant-based lunch that was hearty and very tasty. Apparently it began to prevent or reverse heart disease in me. Right now, I’m thinking of my taste buds and tummy, not that thing inside me that keeps me alive.

The Esselstyn family—dad Caldwell, mother Ann, son Rip, daughter Jane, and Jane’s husband Brian Hart—is an empire of eating right, with a family franchise that includes books, daylong seminars, consulting, and a little light woodworking, including some very handsome cutting boards crafted by Hart. Their publications sell well and broadly. “Our books are in Lithuanian!” says Jane with delighted surprise. They are long and lean, outdoorsy, Wellingtons-by-the door kind of folks. The father owns an Olympic gold medal (he was a member of the 1956 U.S. rowing team), and his high-school age grandkids are competitive swimmers. You don’t hear the word much from their mouths, but they’re vegans. They’re likely to make it sound scientific—“plant-based diet”—or folksy—“nothing with a mother or a face.” It seems they don’t want to scare you by saying “vegan.” Rather, they want to scare you by saying the way you’re currently eating is going to kill you.

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More specifically, Caldwell Esselstyn, the author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure, wants to get people with heart issues to maintain an entirely plant-based diet as the only surefire way to prevent and reverse heart disease, a mouthful of a catchphrase, and one that doesn’t include meat and dairy, of course, but also excludes oils, nuts, and, for heaven’s sake, avocados. Avocados? What the? The superfood? The trendy squashed fruit of the hipster gods with their artisanal toast? What kind of crazy is this?

Caldwell’s book, like Rip Esselstyn’s My Beef with Meat, includes recipes from Caldwell’s wife, Ann Crile Esselstyn. Now she and their daughter, Jane Esselstyn, a registered nurse, have produced an entire book of them, The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook. All follow the same strict guidelines, which might seem severe to some.

Caldwell Esselstyn, a doctor and former surgeon for 35 years at the Cleveland Clinic, calls heart disease a “food-borne illness,” and says his plan is better than the alternatives the medical community currently offers: stents, surgery, and pills. “The most extreme program on the planet is the one that 98% of Americans are following,” he says. While Esselstyn wants everyone, especially heart patients, to adopt a plant-based diet, he doesn’t want them to adapt it (Chapter Five is called “Moderation Kills”).

Anyone openly stating, as the Esselstyn women have, that their book offers “a collection of wisdom” is cruising for bruising response, and the family’s wholesome good looks, charm, success, and evangelical eating could easily make them targets for criticism, especially the charge that they are sort of food fundamentalists, devoted to the one true god of the plant-based diet. You have no doubt sat across a dining table from food fundamentalists, and bathed uncomfortably in their judgment. Unless, of course, you are one yourself, in which case—sorry about the fries. In the words of William Carlos Williams, “Forgive me, they were delicious.”


Hail Kale, Full of Grace

Early on a March Saturday—the Sabbath for some—a motorcade of minivans winds along a curvy lane in Beachwood, and disappears into the bowels of a bland, lonesome building that belongs to the Cleveland Clinic, a suburban satellite wellness center. The drivers are here to attend a daylong workshop entitled “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease for Women.” After ascending to the first floor, the crowd—nearly all women—moves toward the auditorium, drawn to a tall woman carrying what looks like a staff that’s even taller than she. It turns out to be a gigantic cardboard fork. Jane Esselstyn is calling forth the flock.

It is nearly 8:15 and, having decided to skip coffee at home to save time, it suddenly dawns on me that there won’t be any half-and-half for the morning coffee. I worried for nothing. Turns out, there was no coffee.

For the energetic Esselstyns, there is no need for stimulants beyond the couple of hundred devotees who came, some from as far away as Virginia, to learn about a plant-based, heart-saving way of life. Jane, Ann, and Caldwell are among the presenters, and the young Esselstyn offspring scurry about helping out as commanded by mother and grandmother. Jane Esselstyn welcomes the congregants and explains the title of the day’s symposium: “If we called it ‘Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease for Men,’ we’d have the exact same crowd. Women are the change agents.” The pre-conference playlist includes Annie Lennox and, at 8:28am, Aretha Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

Caldwell Esselstyn begins the day’s workshop with a detailed description of the science behind the diet, complete with the same anecdotal evidence of miracle-like heart disease reversal that appears in the Esselstyn books. “It is such a national embarrassment to think we spend over a billion dollars for a disease that doesn’t exist for half the world,” he says during his presentation. His talk includes a seemingly offhand comment that, though he went to Yale, he is still willing to share research gleaned from a study at Harvard, a line that gets a laugh, but might be designed to bolster the credibility of the science he presents.

He outlines the science in simple terms. The endothelial cells, which line our blood vessels and are what he calls the “life jacket and guardian of blood vessel health,” are repeatedly injured from eating oils and animal-based foods. Caldwell’s program is followed by a cardiologist who was plagued with an unexplained illness until she adopted a plant-based diet. When she includes nuts in her food recommendations, the Esselstyns let the heresy slide. Jane Esselstyn’s presentation, “The Benefits of Plant-Based Eating, Above and Below the Belt,” mentions some of the unexpected pleasures of the diet (let’s just say in addition to your statins, you can toss away your Cialis).


Back to Lunch

When I arrive at the Ann and Caldwell’s home for our lunch, two dogs are running loose between their house and that of the house next door, where Jane and her family live. In the kitchen, Jane and Ann are zigzagging around each other and maintaining a lightly needling banter as they prepare a feast. Ann’s penchant for acidic ingredients balanced by complex ameliorating flavors seems an apt metaphor for their communication. Ann makes a red lentil and dill soup, while Jane preps a crunchy “tree bark” dessert. She plates flatbreads and oil-free and tahini-free hummus, jalapeño and salsa corn muffins, and assembles nori rolls, into which she was placing yesterday’s rice, red pepper mayo, mango, and . . . avocados? Forgetting I had, in an email, hinted my disappointment that avocados were verboten, I said to Jane, “I thought avocados were out?” For her, they are, she said, but she added that she knew I liked them. This was a faith that embraced a flexible doctrine.

The Esselstyns favor meals that start with a grain—flatbread, pasta, potato, rice—then add a protein source like beans (they love them all), vegetables—particularly dark, leafy greens, and some sort of seasoning or spice to give it, as they say, “spark.” That’s what lingered on my tongue as I left the Esselstyns’ lunch. Today’s meal includes Ann’s hearty soup, along with muffins made with jalapeño.

As Jane and Ann finish food prep, I scan the kitchen for reasons this diet seems unreasonable, untenable, hell—even undemocratic, or at least limiting and inconvenient.

Without success I search for specialized equipment and oversized refrigerators and freezers. The only device they care deeply about is a frozen dessert tool called a Yonanas, for which they have an almost comical fondness. Eventually I find that the dessert it produces—a banana-based, blueberry-flavored, tofu-filled frozen treat—justifies their affection.

I study the food they’re preparing to find exotic ingredients that would keep this diet out of reach for all but the well-off, maybe something flown in by special helicopter from the Himalayas. Jane says all of it can be found at most grocery stores, and she specifically mentions Marc’s.

We talk about how prepared they must be when traveling, but Ann says one of her favorite things is to find herself in an airport and make a game of putting together a meal from the various limited options. When the family traveled recently to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., they arrived at a Whole Foods just as it closed because of a bomb scare. A nearby Panera met their needs.

I wonder aloud about the time it takes to do this diet right.

“I think it’s no more time than someone who wants to eat well and eat fresh and eat flesh,” Jane says.

She says she makes food in batches—large pots of rice, tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch. “You cook a sack of potatoes while you’re watching Game of Thrones.”

Noticing that Jane, already of enviable posture, has her back up from this line of inquiry, I ask, “What’s the most annoying question you get?”

Without hesitation, Jane and Brian in unison say, “Where do you get your protein?”” (The answer is beans.) A half hour later, sitting down at a table festooned with colorful bowls and a lazy Susan circulating sauces and spices, including pickled ginger and wasabi, I mention the phrase “most annoying question” and Caldwell ventures, “Oh, you mean, ‘Where do you get your protein?’”

I think about why one might take for granted and without question the medical wisdom of a diet formed by gigantic farm subsidies buttressing the corn syrup industry and aided by a multibillion-dollar advertising industry and the equally profit-based pharmaceutical industry. The idea of interrogating a diet devised by the lean and cheerful medical doctor sitting at this table takes the life out of some of the burning questions I thought I had. Because where you get your protein might also be where you get your heart disease. Most people would call that a draw at best.

“Some people find it extreme,” says Jane, of the plant-perfect diet. “But taking a pill every day is extreme, or having stents put in.”

Extreme or not, the better question is how do the Esselstyns expect their way of eating to defend against all of the forces marshaled against it? It is almost a certainty that there will be pages in this very magazine you hold in your hands that will contain foods forbidden by this regimen. “I know we’re spitting into the hurricane,” Jane says. “If I can change the life of one person, then I’m changing the world in my eyes.” Not long after my lunch at the Esselstyns, I tell a college friend and her husband all about it while I sip a cocktail and they eat lunch at the bar of the fancy new Hotel at Oberlin. When I happily describe the diet’s friendliness toward bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes, the newly lean, paleo-based husband sets his gaze upon me—like a carnival act guessing my weight with his eyes. There have been fad diets probably since soon after the actual Paleolithic era, but it seems few regimens have been so squarely in a holy war as the pro-meat-protein sect and the pro-plant sect now fighting for the hearts and waistlines of Americans. For my friend’s husband, the proof is his own reinvigorated health, and he was hearing nothing of the Esselstyns’ carb-tolerant faith.

I sneak a quick glance down at the pork cracklins on his plate.

”Infidel!” I think, but not too seriously.