“I Had a Heart Attack at 49, Went Vegan, and It Saved My Life”–Doug Schmidt
Doug Schmidt loved to eat meat and ate it every day, until at the age of 49, out of the blue, he suffered his first heart attack. "No one expects to have a heart attack at age 49," he said. In the hospital, near his home in Rochester, NY, he made the decision to follow the American Heart Association's dietary guidelines and cut way back on meat and dairy and switch to a more whole-food plant-based diet. Then, just a few months later, he was sent back to the hospital barely able to breathe, and the doctors told him he could have another heart attack any minute.
After getting through that ordeal, Doug knew it was time to take matters into his own hands and not trust that the AHA had the right approach. He and his wife started doing more research while he was recuperating and found out that a plant-based diet based on whole foods and zero oil was the healthiest way to go for someone in Doug's position: No meat, no dairy, no animal fat whatsoever. "She wanted to keep me around," he recalls. Eventually, he adopted a completely vegan diet which ended up saving his life. Within weeks of going full-on vegan, he started losing weight and his blood work improved. Every three months he checked in with his doctor and within 3 years he was completely back to normal healthy levels of cholesterol and other markers for cardiovascular disease.
All in all, changing to an oil-free whole food plant-based approach helped Doug lose sixty pounds and change his entire life, including changing his career path (he is still working as a school teacher) to focus more on educating others about how to start a plant-based diet of their own, for whatever their reason may be. The Beet chatted with Doug on Zoom and he shared his entire journey over the past 9 years since he got healthy, including the challenges, the rewards, the motivations, the exact foods he ate to get healthy, and what inspired him along the way. Here is his play-book including the helpful movies to watch, books to read, and more.
The Beet: Why did you decide to switch to a plant-based diet?
DS: "I had a heart attack at 49, and nobody expects to get a heart attack at 49. All the research showed that if I didn't change my eating habits, I would have another heart attack within five years. Initially, I found Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s work on preventing and reversing heart disease, and at first, I said 'That’s too extreme, I'm not going to do that.'
"So the first year I followed the American Heart Association guidelines, which said I could have a little meat, I could have dairy, I could have eggs, and I ended up in the emergency room with a threat of another heart attack. After that health scare, I took things more seriously but still, the switch didn’t happen overnight. It took us about three years to get fully on board. I switched my diet to save my life, but you know that there has been the added bonus of helping the environment and helping the animals, so it’s allowed me to walk a little softer."
The Beet: Did you feel any immediate benefits when you made your initial change, and how long did it take for you to actually feel healthy again?
DS: "Once we [my wife Shari and I] made that full conversion over to a whole-foods plant-based with no oil– once we did that, all my blood work numbers came in line.
"My total cholesterol dropped down to under 150. My blood sugars all dropped in line. I lost 60 pounds, I went from 225 to 165 pounds. Once the weight started dropping off, as I consistently ate clean plant-based foods, the better my numbers got.
"I had a great doctor, who would take blood work every 3 months and he could tell if I was staying on track with my diet. My doctor would know if I hadn’t lost weight, he’d know if my cholesterol was still high. And as soon as I started eating properly, all those numbers came down and came in line. So it really was miraculous, once that started happening. With those health benefits, that was sort of all the encouragement I needed to keep going."
The Beet: Your wife Shari also went vegan. What has her plant-based journey been like?
DS: "I had my heart attack just before we met, so she wanted to keep me around. So she was very instrumental in my making the switch. She took the E-Cornell plant-based nutrition course and she would read and say to me: "Oh, we got to stop eating this! Oh, we’ve got to stop eating oil!" And I replied "Really?" But she helped me transition the most, because we did it together. She also had all the same health benefits as mI had. She lost 30 lbs and her numbers also all came in line and she felt healthier."
The Beet: How long was it before she began to see health benefits?
DS: "We really didn't see a lot of the weight loss until we hit that no oil phase. In the first week of not eating oil, she lost 5 pounds. Then it just started dropping off after that"
The Beet: Before having a heart attack, how often were you eating meat?
DS: "Pretty much every day. Dairy was definitely all throughout our diet. Pecorino Romano went into just about everything I made. Actually, when I had the heart attack, we moved to an 8-acre farm, and we decided we were going to grow a lot of our own food or as much as possible. That included raising chickens, not for the meat, but for the eggs. When we made that transition over, now we had chickens, but we weren’t eating the eggs. We weren’t going to just give those chickens away, but we weren't going to eat them either.
"So they just lived out their lives on the farm, being chickens. It was interesting to interact with them, they were great creatures to interact with. We now laugh, when we look at our pantry right now and see that it doesn’t look like what it did ten years ago. The things that are in there are like, My gosh! How 'Hippy-eating, Kombucha-drinking' our pantry looks now. We just laugh."
The Beet: What were your biggest challenges you found when switching your diet?
DS: "I was a baker in a previous life. I used to be a bakery trainer for a major supermarket chain, Wegmans, before I became a teacher. So I can bake anything, from Croissants to Danish to Cakes, and I also have a sweet tooth. So that was sort of hard. I asked myself "how do you make a dessert without all that added sugar, without all the added fat or the eggs, or the dairy"? Especially because the cornerstone of most pastry is eggs, as well as butter, and dairy. So it was tough to make that change.
"Probably the hardest thing to give up was the cheese. The meat wasn't too hard, but you know, the cheese, which we used to put on everything. And then we had to figure out ways to get away from that taste addiction."
The Beet: Are you still baking? What substitutes do you use for dairy and eggs?
DS: "Oh, yes, I’m still baking. For eggs and dairy, I don't think of it as substituting eggs and dairy because they serve as a certain component. Whether its eggs for a binder or for a lift in a product or for adding fat. So, I look at things I can use instead, for fat, for binders, and for leavening. So for instance instead of fat, a lot of it now comes from using nuts.
"I used to make a French Pear Tart that was totally decadent, and it contained a lot of eggs, butter, and dairy in it. I make that same tart now with crushed nuts, oats, and a little maple syrup for the crust. For the filling, I use flax meal to make the typical flax egg, and that’s enough to act as the binder. So I do things like that.
"I look at ways of incorporating beans to give a creaminess, not just black beans but white beans, to give creaminess in a filling. Also using those old skills and substituting non-dairy milk, I can make a simple custard that tastes just as good as the old one, but without any of the animal products. I found some workarounds for most of these things."
The Beet: What do you normally eat in a day to maintain your health?
DS: "It hasn’t changed too much. Typically I have an oat-bowl in the morning, with lots of fresh berries– strawberries, blueberries, raspberries–some flaxseed, Lately, we’ve added [plant-based] yogurt to our breakfast mix that we make in our instant pot. For the base, we start with a soy-based yogurt as the culture, and we just use soy milk and put it in the instant-pot overnight, and the next day when you wake up, you have about 4, 5 cups of fresh yogurt. Then we also have a bowl of steamed kale with some balsamic vinegar on the side and that’s breakfast–and that’s also basically lunch. We eat two meals a day. For dinner, it's whatever we're creating at the moment. A lot of bowls, stir-fries, soups, and salads, depending on what we're in the mood for. Right now we're prepping our second cookbook, so it's whatever we're cooking for the cookbook is what's typically for dinner."
The Beet: What’s your cookbook called?
DS: "Our first cookbook is called Eat Plants, Love: Recipes for a Good Life, and the second one that will be coming out this fall is called Eat More Plants, Recipes from the Good Life Challenge and we had some of the people who took our 10-day challenge contribute recipes to it."
The Beet: What, if any, vitamins do you take?
DS: "Right now, we’re taking Complement, which is done by the guys from Plant-Based Athlete. It gives us our B-12, our D3, and also K2, which is for heart health, specifically for me. It has all the stuff we need, and it also has magnesium and other essentials. Initially, we were taking K2, D3, and B1 separately, but we figured we might as well get it all in one package."
The Beet: What advice do you give someone just starting their plant-based journey?
DS: " I always tell people it is going to be hard, because you're giving up a lifetime of eating habits, so take it a bit at a time if that's the kind of person you are. Or you can just go all in. You know the first thing we tell people is that dairy is probably the most addictive and is what most people struggle with.
"But you'll also immediately see results. We do our 10-day challenge, in which we say just do it in ten days because you can do anything for 10 days. That really gets people clean in 5 or 6 days, they feel the results. We tell people going 75% plant-based is not giving you 100% of results. The only way you really see results is going all in.
"We also tell people, you’re going to struggle, relapse, or fall off the wagon, as some people say, but it's okay, you have a chance at the next meal to eat healthily. Just keep working at it, it’s like any habit, you have to practice it to make it easier. And the longer you do it, the easier it gets."
The Beet: Do you have anything you would recommend reading or watching?
DS: "One that really hit home was The Game Changers. And, Forks Over Knives of course is a good one. The one that actually made me go vegan was the one Joaquin Phoneix narrates, Earthlings. It’s the movie’s opening with the definition of Earthlings that really made me stop and think. It’s saying that it's human’s arrogance to think that we're the only sentient beings on Earth.
"Any creature that lives on this Earth is a sentient being, they are all earthlings, which really hit home to me. You can't go back [to eating animal product] if you're true to your morals about animal welfare. I don't know how people can revert back."
The Beet: Do you have a mantra that you live by?
DS: "It's that I walk a little bit more softly on the earth. Whether that's in my interactions with people or interactions with animals, I know that eating this way helps everything and everyone. It helps the environment, it helps the animals, and I know I'm not hurting anyone.
"That next step for me is to be gentle, generous, and kind, and giving that to the humans I interact with. So it is to walk softly on the earth, or gently. That sort of encompasses everything. My wife and I talk every once in a while, and we ask each other: Would you ever go back to eating certain things. For instance, I loved eggs. I loved meat, but when you think about where these things came from, and those abuses that those animals go through, you can’t let go of that idea. For me, that mantra is walk softly on the earth."