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Q&A with John Bagnulo

What’s been the most important recent development in holistic health?
The biggest breakthroughs have been in the fields of nutrition and stress reduction-and the importance of those in reversing heart disease and cancer. When I look at the past 20, 30 years of research, I think we have a better understanding of the etiology of heart disease as it relates to diet. We came from a point in the 1970s and 1980s when it was all about eating a low-fat diet and eliminating dietary cholesterol, and we had a scant amount of information. We know now a diet that’s virtually cholesterol-free can still cause cholesterol problems.

We’ve also learned that the love we have in our lives, the relationships we have, and the support systems we have, go a long way in maintaining health. This could apply to all kinds of chronic illness, but the strongest evidence is in heart disease.

Why is the emotional component so important?
Everything is tied together. Our endocrine system is so tied into our neurological patterns; if you’re always in a sympathetic state and geared up, it affects cortisol levels and melatonin levels, and is really one of the fastest ways to create imbalance in the body. Or if you’re always thinking about your place in the world in a negative light, it can really affect your health.

Can most people prevent heart disease through what they eat?
Absolutely. If someone has significant heart disease, she should be very aggressive and eat a diet that’s radically different than the typical American diet. For prevention, you can be a little more flexible. If you already have significant levels of coronary plaque, your diet should be very low-glycemic, very low in animal protein, and high in fiber-fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. But less than 3 percent of your total calories should come from animal sources.

Oils should be cardiovascular-friendly, like extra-virgin olive oil—and not in very large quantities, since there is debate about how much oil is beneficial. I discourage people from consuming much dairy, since that’s animal protein. It could be a recipe for disaster for people with heart disease. I recommend beans every day, and to go light on flour.

What should people eat to prevent heart disease?
I recommend a similar diet to that above, still with large quantities of fruits and vegetables, and beans several times a week. Beans are one of the more useful foods in both preventing and reversing heart disease. All types are good: soy, hummus, lentils. Soluble fiber is key—in my opinion, it’s the most important keystone. Try not to eat processed food; snack on nuts and seeds, only drink water. Once you get the sugar, flour, and meat out of your system and you’re using beans and fish more, changes really start to happen.

What are the benefits of reducing animal protein?
Animal protein communicates with our endocrine system and influences every aspect of who we are. Animal protein tends to have a significant acid load (it’s made up of acid-forming amino acids), which takes its toll on several of our systems. With respect to heart disease, animal protein increases the body’s production of cholesterol and various lipids.

Where do you stand on red wine and chocolate?
A glass of red wine is mildly protective, but it’s not like having a cup of beans. Truth be told, you could get the same benefits from turmeric or Concord grape juice. But if it’s something you enjoy, and it might have some mild stress reduction in your life, it could be part of a nice cultural ritual. As long as you don’t abuse it or are taking medications that put a burden on your liver. Dark chocolate has valuable benefits, but it’s got to be more than 80 percent cocoa, so there’s not so much sugar that it raises insulin levels.

When does heart disease start for most people?
In our country, it often starts when we’re kids. Studies have looked at the bodies of children who have died suddenly and autopsies show significant coronary lesions in these kids. In America, we’re very sedentary, and 15-year-olds certainly have had plaque already formed.

Gene expression plays a role, and is a fascinating field. We know that things like the percentage of animal protein in your diet, and specific vitamins and nutrients, bind onto our DNA and literally suppress or enhance the expression of genes. Animal protein is shown to enhance that expression.

What if change feels too overwhelming?
I think it’s pretty easy to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet. For many people, it looks like it’s a million miles away, but after three weeks, it’ll be a habit. Look at it one day at a time, and not as six months or a lifetime. After a month, it’ll be subconscious. You’ll feel so much better, with so much more energy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier, as opposed to thinking how tough it is.

Learn more about John and his upcoming programs at Kripalu.