The Connection Between a Plant-Based Diet and Good Heart Health

By Heather Shenkman, MD, FACC, Interventional Cardiologist and part of the Jewish Veg Advisory Council.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for one in four deaths in the United States.* Genetics definitely plays a role in who gets heart disease. However, our lifestyle — including diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and stress management — can reduce the risk of a heart attack by a whopping 80%.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to eat plant-based for the animals and for our environment.  That said, I focus in my daily work on preventing and treating heart disease. It’s good to know that eating in a way that is good for the animals and the planet is also optimal for your heart. For me, the connection between a plant-based diet and good health is all too clear, as I treat patients who have lost their health at least partially due to their poor dietary choices.

Choosing a healthy plant-based diet can naturally lower blood pressure and cholesterol, decrease atherosclerosis (plaque within the arteries), reduce obesity, and decrease inflammation in the body.

The Adventist Health Study demonstrated a much lower prevalence of heart disease among vegetarians and vegans compared to those consuming animal products. While red and processed meats have been demonstrated to increase the incidence of heart disease, replacing animal protein with plant protein can reduce the risk of heart disease and death by 54%.**

For people who already have heart disease, transitioning to a plant-diet can pay big dividends. 

Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. — director of the Heart Disease Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic — began urging his patients to adopt plant-based diets after seeing the amazing results of a study he conducted himself. 

He started with a group of 24 patients with end-stage heart disease, putting them all on a diet free of oil, nuts and animal products, with the exception of a small amount of fat-free milk and yogurt.  

Of the 24 patients, six failed to stick to the mostly vegan diet. All six suffered cardiac events within the next five years, including heart attacks and bypass surgeries. But among the 18 patients who adhered to Dr. Esselstyn’s recommendations, none experienced a cardiac event over that five-year period. 

Dr. Esselstyn, as many other researchers have done since, showed that you can not just prevent but reverse heart disease through improved diets. 

While I certainly advocate that my patients also get adequate exercise, avoid smoking, and develop rich, full social lives, I am most concerned with their diets. I have seen my own patients reverse their heart disease by following a plant-based diet. In fact, not one of my patients who has adopted a plant-based diet has suffered another heart attack, or even required another stent. 

As Dr. Kim Williams, former president of the American College of Cardiology, once said: 

“There are only two kinds of cardiologists: Vegans, and those who haven’t read the data.” 

To learn more about Dr. Shenkman’s work or schedule an appointment, visit

*Virani et al, Heart disease and stroke statistics – 2021 update: a report from the American Heart Association, Circulation, 2021:143:e254-e743

**Zhong VW, Allen NB, Greenland P, et al. Protein foods from animal sources, incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: a substitution analysis. Int J Epidemiol. 2021;50(1):223-233. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa205) 

Guest post by Sandra McDonagh.

Dora Schwarz holding a photo of her mentor Dr Bircher-benner

Dora Schwarz holding
a photo of her mentor
Dr Bircher-benner

Just over a decade ago I made a discovery that not only changed my life, but also the way I viewed my family. I realized that there was such a thing as an ancestral bond.

I had been soul searching, and I manifested Dora Schwarz, my paternal great grandmother (1894 – 1982). Once widely known as the priestess of health, she was a pioneer of vegan, vegetarian, and raw foods almost 100 years ago! It has to be said that there were of course people championing this lifestyle way before my great grandma, but it definitely had not become mainstream and was still viewed as a rather strange way to conduct one’s life.

Dora Schwarz ran a successful sanatorium/spa from the 1930s until the end of the 1960s and wrote a cookbook to aid those trying to change their eating habits and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Walter Schwarz around 1930

Walter Schwarz around 1930

Born in Innsbruck, Austria to a Jewish family, Dora (still in her teens) married Walter Schwarz (no relation), owner of the SL Schwarz department store and gallery owner in Salzburg, who showcased the works of up-and-coming artists of the time like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. In 1917, towards the end of World War I, Dora decided to pursue her dream of becoming a health professional and traveled to the renowned Dr Bircher-benner spa in Zurich, Switzerland to study and qualify in the field of nutrition. The Swiss doctor who pioneered vegetarianism and raw food is now probably best remembered for his popular breakfast dish Bircher Muesli.

After achieving what she set out to do and armed with her qualifications, Dora returned to Austria, but when the stirrings of antisemitism started to rise, Dora left for Palestine in July 1933. Walter stayed behind to run the family businesses. Sadly, he was arrested twice by the Gestapo, and the second time he was taken from Vienna to the SS headquarters in Munich, where he was then murdered. Thankfully Dora managed to bring her three children with her, one of those children being my Grandfather Hugo.

After Dora arrived in Palestine, she decided to search for a place to open her health center and in 1935 she threw her doors open to the community and started to establish her business. It didn’t take long before people were traveling far and wide to receive the care of my great grandma and sample the lifestyle she had started to preach. The sanatorium was frequented by many famous people of the time including the former president of Israel Zalman Shazar, philosopher Hugo Bergmann, as well as many other actors, writers, and artists.

Dora Schwarz was promoting the current self-care movement way ahead of her time; she was completely anti-smoking, pro-exercise, and a big advocate of the power of breath work (or breathing gymnastics as she called it in her spa brochure). Her recipe book revolves around consuming raw fruits and vegetables for optimum health and healing chronic disease, as well as incorporating many vegan and vegetarian recipes too.

My great grandmother had a very strong business acumen for a woman of her time and this was reflected in the success of the sanatorium. She was always busy and fully booked but gave each guest her undivided attention.

The entrance to the Dora Schwarz Sanatorium

The entrance to the
Dora Schwarz Sanatorium

In 2012, I decided to quit smoking. I had been a vegetarian for many years but decided to pursue a vegan diet instead. It was while I was doing some research on a plant-based lifestyle and had embarked on a rather in-depth internet sleuthing session that I stumbled across Dora’s cookbook and I was in complete admiration. Shortly after that my husband gifted me an original copy of the book in English (it was also written in German and Hebrew) that he had tracked down in a little antique bookshop in Jerusalem and surprised me with it on my birthday. I could not believe that I was actually holding a copy of my great grandmother’s book, and as I started to flick through the pages it dawned on me just what a trailblazer she really was — a truly progressive woman!

In the book I discovered a recipe for avocado smash, and one for almond milk — things that I thought were ultra modern and hipster inventions were staring me in the face in a book written nearly 100 years ago! My great grandmother’s cookbook has completely amazed and inspired me. It is a book filled to the brim with a wealth of recipes, even incorporating seasonal and weekly menu plans — plus a menu specifically designed to help reverse chronic disease and illnesses common to man through the aid of vegan, vegetarian, and raw foods.

Dora Schwarz's original cookbook in English

Dora Schwarz’s original
cookbook in English

I myself have been a raw food vegan and even a fruitarian over the years. I have spent a lot of time researching veganism and raw food diets originally for the health benefits they had to offer. When I was eating a 100% raw food diet my energy levels went through the roof. Nowadays, I have gravitated to a more varied vegan diet incorporating cooked foods as well as eating an abundance of raw fruits and vegetables. Veganism to me is a lifestyle and I eat this way for the health benefits for sure, but also for my love of animals. I have enjoyed eating this way for over a decade now.

It has been a truly wonderful journey discovering and uncovering the story of my great grandmother and receiving the chance to connect with her via the pages of her book. So much so, it inspired me to write my own book, which explores her pioneering life and historic recipes, as well as including vegan recipes of my own and a family memoir celebrating a wonderfully vibrant but highly dysfunctional Jewish family heritage, all centered around a shared passion for food.

Author: Sandra McDonagh