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Diet vs. Disease

Can what we eat prevent or reverse serious conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes? In a new book, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams says yes … because he’s the living proof.

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Diet vs. Disease

“In March 2016, life was good. I had the best job in the world: representing Brooklyn as borough president. I had just turned 56. I felt healthy. Maybe I was a bit overweight, but so were most people my age. I exercised regularly, and like all New Yorkers, I walked everywhere. I even got on the basketball court now and then. I looked and felt fine—that is, until the day I woke up blind.” So begins <Healthy at Last> by Eric Adams—a book that’s one part memoir, one part health guide, and one part cookbook. It traces Adams’ journey to healing after he woke up blind that spring morning. The reason for his visual impairment? Advanced type 2 diabetes, which his doctor would soon diagnose. “When I left the pharmacy after my diabetes diagnosis, I thought: <Is this really my future?>” writes Adams. “I had put myself through college, worked my way up from a beat cop to a captain to the New York State Senate and then to Brooklyn Borough Hall. I had a plan to become mayor of New York one day. I stared at those sad little pills in that sad little box and thought: <I’ve come too far to live out of a pillbox, man. There must be a better way. A healthier way.>” Here’s what happened next—in Adams’ own words.

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My health journey

There are some things you just don’t accept, and bad health is one of them. My family and my doctor believed that diabetes was genetic. It’s just something that happens when you get older, they said, especially for Black folks. As a former police officer, though, I knew better than to take anything for granted. I was going to evaluate the situation based on the evidence and come to an informed conclusion, just like I would at a crime scene. Was chronic disease and pain encoded into my DNA? Or was there something else going on?

The obvious place to look was my diet—one born from long hours on the beat. For many years, I worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, so there weren’t many quality food options available. There was only fast food. I became a connoisseur of the dollar menu.

After scouring the web, I came across research by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the best hospitals in the country. Thirty years earlier, he had taken 21 patients with severe heart disease and put them on something called a whole-food, plant-based diet. I didn’t know what that meant, so I googled it. Whole-plant foods are unprocessed and unrefined. Think of them as what you’d pluck off a vine or dig up in the ground. They don’t have added chemicals to turn them into Frankenstein foods, like potatoes into French fries or tomatoes into ketchup. They also don’t have ingredients taken away, like brown rice into white rice. Finally, as part of this diet and just as important, you couldn’t eat any animal products. No burgers, no fried chicken, no eggs, no dairy, no fish. I couldn’t even use cooking oils. In short: nothing I could get off the dollar menu.

Food was more than sustenance for me. It was a part of my heritage. I could give up the fast food, sure, but what about soul food? I grew up eating my mom’s cooking, and she learned the recipes from her mom, and her mom before her. The cuisine dated back hundreds of years, when my enslaved ancestors were fed the least desirable parts of animal carcasses, such as the ears, hooves, tails, and snouts. Slaves had to pioneer the use of spices and new ways of frying to make this food edible, and over the generations, these dishes became soul-food staples. What would Mom say when I refused to eat her cooking? How would my friends react when I went to their dinner parties and asked for rice and beans instead of mac and cheese? The borough of Brooklyn is 35 percent Black. What kind of message would it send to my brothers and sisters—my constituents—if I gave up such an important part of our heritage?

I almost turned my computer off, but I had to know the answer: What happened to Dr. Esselstyn’s 21 patients after they gave up the kind of food I ate every day? Nearly all of them reversed their heart disease and avoided any further heart attacks. Their arteries, once clogged with plaque, healed themselves after cutting out animal products and processed foods.

Could it be that simple? I dug deeper. I came across research by Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). His team took patients with type 2 diabetes and fed them nothing but whole-plant foods. Within weeks, “participants saw dramatic health improvements,” Dr. Barnard reported. “They lost weight, [and] insulin sensitivity improved … In some cases, you would never know they’d had the disease to begin with.”

<You would never know they’d had the disease to begin with?> The more I read, the more excited I became. I could get off insulin. I could get off all the meds. I could wake up energized and excited for my day—something I hadn’t felt in many years. I could be healthy at last.

The first week [on] was incredibly tough. It took all my willpower not to duck into McDonald’s or KFC or to hit up the food carts that were stationed next to Borough Hall. For years I had been their best customer.

“Yo, Eric,” they’d call out. “No hot dog today? No chicken and rice?”

“Not today,” I’d say, jogging back to Borough Hall before I changed my mind. Instead it was a salad with black beans, tofu, tomatoes, and broccoli with tahini sauce back at my desk. When I was done with that, it was carrots and hummus. I snacked on edamame and trail mix. At 4 p.m., I had an apple and a banana. Whenever I was hungry, I simply ate more plants.

At dinner, my wife and I rediscovered our love of cooking. I couldn’t make Mom’s old soul-food dishes anymore, but I could reinvent them. We made vegan pot pie with cornbread crust using coconut milk. Vegan macaroni and cheese with almond milk and nutritional yeast. Oil-free sweet potato casserole. Vegan gumbo with beans and okra.*

Almost immediately, the extra fat on my body seemed to melt away. After a week, I hitched my belt one hole tighter. After two weeks, my suit pants fit like a baggy parachute and my jacket sagged around the shoulders. People began to notice my dramatic weight loss. I woke up with a spring in my step. I was no longer winded climbing the stairs of Borough Hall. I no longer felt exhausted by 3 p.m. Better yet, my vision cleared up entirely. Within two months of going plant based, I had shed 35 pounds.

When I returned to my original doctor, he looked at my new blood work and gasped.

<It was like I was never diabetic at all>. Decades of poor health habits and tens of thousands of Big Macs, chicken wings, and French fries—all reversed in a matter of months.

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A closer look at heart disease

In the United States, African Americans have the highest rates of heart disease compared to whites and Hispanics. Many people think that heart disease is something that only men suffer from; in fact, since 1984, more women have died from it than men on an annual basis.

As I tell my friends and constituents every single day: It’s not our DNA that’s responsible for these frightening statistics; it’s our dinner. A diet rich in any combination of meat, dairy, and eggs can clog our arteries.

Don’t become a statistic. Heart disease is preventable and, in many cases, reversible. Have you given your heart a checkup recently? If you’re over 35, get your cholesterol levels measured every three years. Generally speaking, you want your total cholesterol level to be under 200 and your LDL cholesterol—the “bad” cholesterol—under 100 mg/dL. But don’t stop there. You can potentially get your LDL cholesterol closer to 70 or under if you eat a purely plant-based diet, which is about as close as you can get to total immunity from heart disease.

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