James Cook’s heart signaled trouble. Subtly at first. Indiscernible discomfort. Twinges of pain.

The Saugatuck, Michigan, resident mentioned the sensations during his annual physical. A stress test revealed irregularities so his doctor sent him to a cardiologist in January 2019.

“The cardiologist went in through my wrist to check my heart and arteries,” Cook, 70, said. “I was only in there a few minutes before the doctor said it looked like I had about a 99% blockage.”

Cook and his wife, Kathleen, had dinner plans that night, but the cardiologist said those plans would have to change. He ordered an ambulance to transport Cook to the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids.

As a former Denver-based photojournalist for Newsweek and Time, tight deadlines and high pressure situations were nothing new for Cook.

But even he was shocked by the deadline that may have saved his life—the following morning he underwent surgery. David Spurlock, MD, a Spectrum Health cardiothoracic surgeon, performed the successful coronary artery bypass graft.

“My heart apparently is healthy, but my arteries were clogged,” Cook said. “I always had a problem with statins (cholesterol medication). I would react to them and get muscle aches.”

Cook later met with Thomas Boyden, MD, Spectrum Health preventive cardiologist, to discuss a once-a-month injectable statin.

“While we were there, he showed me some books he had on the shelf about diet—in particular, Dr. Esselstyn’s plant-based diet,” Cook said.

Little did he know at the time, the book “Reverse Heart Disease,” would forever change his life. And his health.

“Dr. Boyden said, ‘You ought to consider this,’” Cook said. “We went home and read the book and decided to go with the diet.”

Culinary changes

Cook and his wife of 15 years, Kathleen, cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerator of salmon, avocados, nuts and other favorites and restocked with no meat, no dairy, no nuts and no oil.

“It’s a vegan diet, but it’s a very strict one,” Cook said. “You don’t know how hard it is to find food with no oils. But I decided to give it a shot. And if I’m going to give it a shot, it was all or nothing. For 90 days, I was 100% pure to that diet. You can’t even eat Craisins because they have oil in them.”

After three months on the diet, Cook revisited Dr. Boyden.

Although he exercises regularly, Cook credits the diet with monumental changes in his health numbers.

His LDL, unhealthy cholesterol that delivers fat molecules to cells, decreased from 133 mg/dL to 54 mg/dL. He lost 18 pounds. Kathleen dropped 10 pounds.

Dr. Boyden issued a permission slip that few would welcome—Cook could resume shoveling snow.

“I’ve been a life-long lover of shoveling snow,” Cook said. “We were just blown away by the results of the diet alone. I need no further medications. My health is outstanding now. I have more energy. Dr. Boyden was thrilled. He said only a few had ever taken him up on that diet.”

Ditching the medicines

Not only does Cook have more energy and positive health markers, he no longer needed to see Dr. Boyden.

“No medications, no blood thinners, it’s all diet,” Cook said. “If I had done this years ago, I never would have needed the heart surgery. I’m sure of it. It’s thrilling. I’ve become an evangelist for this diet. It was difficult at first, but we’re finding there’s a lot we can eat. We had wonderful burritos last night made with vegetables.”

His wife said she never liked cooking before, but the new diet has sparked a passion.

“I have discovered all these herbs and spices—the tastes, the flavors are things I’ve never really had. It’s yummy. Now I look at things with oils and and fats and go ‘ohhhh.’ We were big salmon lovers. And chicken. Now, we have neither. I thought I’d miss salmon, but I don’t. I lost 10 pounds and I didn’t even know it.”

Kathleen said she appreciates not having to count calories.

“If you just stick to the diet, you can have as much of anything you want and the weight will come off,” she said.

Kathleen, a science journalist, said as soon as Dr. Boyden recommended “Reversing Heart Disease,” she dove in with open heart and eyes.

“I’m a researcher so I wanted to learn about it,” she said. “The thrilling part about this is that the diet is the only thing shown to actually be able to reverse the buildup in your arteries.”

Chopping their way to health

They make their own hummus, with chickpeas, garlic and lemon, but skip the oil.

Instead of using oil to fry food, they use vegetable broth.

“Cleanup is much easier,” he said.

Kathleen chimed in: “That very thing is what makes you think about the consistency of oil and how hard that must be on the body. That’s why your body feels so much better.”

Cook said when he worked in the yard recently, he noticed he didn’t have to stop and rest like he did in years past.

Dinner time is a bit of a workout in itself—they spend a lot of time chopping vegetables.

“It’s quite a thing to make a dinner because there’s a lot of pots and pans and a lot of chopping and lots of seasoning and lot of steps but the end result is so good,” Kathleen said. “It takes time. You do have to commit to it and take ownership of it.”

They drink water, coffee and wine.

On a recent weekday, the couple pulled out their cutting board and started chopping celery and carrots. Their Yorkie, Finn, has learned to like the new diet, too. When Finn heard the sound of knife hitting cutting board, he ran into the kitchen. Cook fed him a carrot.

“This is our life,” Kathleen said. “We’ve been through two chopping boards since we started this diet. There are hard parts to it, but you find substitutes. I have arthritis and it has helped the aching a lot. We have our fingers crossed that it will keep Jim going and me, too. And maybe it will keep Finn going until he’s 16.”

Sweet potatoes fill a bowl on the counter. Inside their cabinets? Nectar, miso, balsamic vinegar, hot sauce and various spices.

Their refrigerator is stuffed with mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower and greens.

Cook said the longer he’s on the diet, the more his body craves the food that the diet recommends. It’s easy to remember—don’t eat anything that has a face or has a mother.

“What food attracts you changes,” he said. “Now we recoil when we see Whoppers on TV—the oil, the fat, the texture—because we don’t want that anymore. I really don’t think humans were meant to eat that stuff. If I get hungry, I eat vegetables.”

Instead of a bowl of ice cream for dessert, they choose applesauce.

When they attend social gatherings, they focus on vegetables and fruits.

“I’ve gone to wedding receptions and they always have a tray of veggies,” he said. “I just gorge on those and the fruits and I’m covered.”

They used to follow a Mediterranean diet, eating a lot of salmon and nuts.

These days, he mixes dry oatmeal with raisins and carries that around to snack on.

Lunch may consist of a small red potato, microwaved with spinach and mushrooms.

“We also eat a lot of salads,” he said. “We’re finding there are a lot of dressings that have no oil in them—a lot of balsamic vinegar, some dijon dressings. We found organic soups free of oils—tomato, vegetable—little box soups.”

Cook said the food can be a bit pricey, but by not buying meat, it balances out.

“We go to the store twice a week now because we’re eating so many fresh foods instead of processed foods,” he said. “We found a hummus that has no oil in it. Special K red berry cereal has no oil in it. The first couple of weeks, we read every label. We still look at labels.”

Instead of bacon and eggs, he’ll choose grape nuts or oatmeal with blueberries, topped with oat milk.

If he dines out, he’ll order a baked potato and salad.

“We’re amazed,” he said. “I’m telling everyone who will listen. It really can be lifesaving for people. I’m sure there are degrees of it as well, but we just decided if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.”

Cook said he’s feeling so great, that even at age 70, he would challenge his son to a foot race.

And retirement? He’s feeling too healthy these days to think about slowing down.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever retire,” he said. “I’m still doing photographs and landscapes and selling those through a local gallery in Saugatuck.”

‘Reverse or cure’ heart disease

Dr. Boyden said he’s impressed with Cook’s progress.

“Mr. Cook was very open in looking for ways to attack his heart disease that didn’t require medications,” Dr. Boyden said. “Since starting a whole-food, plant-based diet and eliminating all animal or by-products and minimizing any processed food, Mr. Cook has lost almost 18 pounds. He feels remarkably better and his bad cholesterol decreased by 33%.”

Dr. Boyden said he admires Cook’s tenacity.

“This is not necessarily the easiest diet to follow,” he said. It is not only all plant, but it is also low fat. This means elimination of oils, nuts, seeds and avocado or other fatty plants. This diet has been shown to completely reverse coronary artery disease. Medications do not do this and obviously bypass surgery does not.”

Dr. Boyden said several of his patients are following the diet to “reverse or cure” their disease.

“All plant-based diets show an improvement in cardiovascular risk by decreasing risk of heart attack, stroke, stents, bypass surgery and even death,” Dr. Boyden said. “Mr. Cook’s prognosis is much better now compared to when he had his bypass because the habits that led to his coronary artery disease have all changed for the better. He feels great and he has found the transition to an all-plant diet remarkably easy, as has his wife.”