Armando Alvarez struggled with weight all his life. In his 40s he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, then chronic heart disease. Told his only option was triple bypass surgery, Armando feared the risks of surgery due to his anesthesia allergy, so he did something radical; he went plant-based.
Today, with the help of his cardiologist's encouragement, Armando has reversed his heart disease and diabetes thanks to a plant-based diet and exercise (he's since completed four half marathons!). MamaSezz co-founder Meg Donahue caught up with Armando to hear his amazing transformation story firsthand.
What was your life like before you changed your diet?
I pretty much always struggled with my weight. There are photographs of me at eight years old that show that I was quite heavy. I think they used to call it husky back in the day. As a teenager I became very active in sports and the amount of exercise that I did really camouflaged my eating disorder. I ran so much as a football player that frankly it was difficult to maintain weight. However as soon as I quit football I blew up like a balloon.
I always considered myself a healthy eater; I drank my milk for the bones and ate meat for my proteins. And I can continued to gain weight. I always felt fat regardless of my weight, not realizing that I was feeling bloated because of the milk.
Fast forward to being 46-years-old and getting diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This just added to my frustration. It was always difficult for me to lose weight and the doctors admonishments didn’t help. I felt there was no direction from my previous doctors, other than saying that I was obese and that I needed to lose weight.
One doctor, looking at my triglycerides number in the 800s, just looked at me and said that “you have a ticking time bomb in your chest.” It certainly got my attention but without a plan I was unable to do anything about it.
Slowly my diabetes progressed to where I was taking multiple pills trying to control it and eventually ended up with major triple vessel heart disease, one hundred percent blockage in one artery, two others at eighty percent.
I was told my only option was triple bypass heart surgery. Which was really not an option because I had allergic reactions in the past to anesthesia.
What happened next?
Well, my wake up call was being faced with triple bypass heart surgery and realizing that was not an option for me due to the anesthesia, plus I had a tremendous fear of having my heart stopped.
I usually get around saying that I’ve had enough car trouble in the past with batteries knowing that sometimes you can’t restart a car. I’m thinking “my goodness what if they can’t restart my heart?”
The next thing that happened was I looked up triple bypass heart operation on YouTube. I really got in trouble with my daughter for this. She said, “Dad, why would you do such a thing?!” And I understood what she was saying she felt that because of the terror I felt regarding the open heart surgery, that I would promise to do good with my eating...but it would be short lived, only lasting for a couple of weeks like it had always been in the past and then I would revert back to my old ways. Boy was she in for a surprise!
How are you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
Ironically it became easy when it legitimately became a matter of life and death. When I understood that my back was against the wall and then I had zero options — triple bypass heart surgery with all the risk of complications and meds. Not to mention the cost and recovery even if everything were to go well and frankly, I wasn’t feeling lucky because of 13+ years of diabetes type 2.
Or I could eat my way out of this health crisis. I became aware of my options with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish. I consumed their books literally because I cooked the recipes they recommended and I watched every video and documentary that I could including Forks Over Knives. I started to feel hope. And I think hope, especially during the critical period, was paramount with being able to maintain this new direction for my life.
What is your life like now?
Frankly, I’m shocked at where I am with my life. I am an athlete again!
This all came to ahead three years ago in 2016 when I had my first chest pain, which I then learned was angina. Suffering from angina for probably a year and a half almost daily. And by the way I had what was called unstable angina which was the most dangerous kind because it had nothing to do with exertion but everything to do with my heart not getting enough blood. I progressed from 2016 continually getting better to 2018 when my amazing doctor, Dr. George Guthrie, gave me permission to start exercising again (showing me how to do it with safely with a heart rate monitor).
Amazing! I never thought this would be a part of my life ever again.
One month after being greenlit to work out, I ran my first 5K with my wife on July 4th. Independence Day, how fitting.
In the next twelve months. I did about ten more 5K’s and I also ran four half marathons. 13.1 miles each.
The most incredible one to me was in New York City; Central Park, December 8, 2019. It was 28 degrees that morning with four massive hills that I had to run. In the past, the cold and hills always trigger the angina and in this particular race I had been off all my meds for about six months, including statins. Just to say that I was nervous would be an understatement. And not only did I complete my run but did it in about three hours and twenty five minutes, which at the time was my fastest half marathon for the year.
Four weeks later I would go on to do my fourth half marathon and I would be able to break three hours for a run of two hours and fifty seven minutes! Knocking off about forty five minutes from my time in a twelve month period. Which is incredible considering the heart disease that I had. By the way, when my cardiologist saw my first 5K of July and my time was an average of eighteen minute miles he said, “you were sprinting.”
What is my favorite food or dish?
Being a Cuban-born American, I love traditional Cuban food.
What is remarkable is that I have learned to cook traditional Cuban food and to make it all plant-based. It’s interesting, I post a lot on Facebook and whenever I post my Cuban dishes I get tons of responses and rave reviews. And I smile inside because I’m thinking they can’t even taste the food, it is just a photograph of that they’re looking at! I’ve learned that it’s all about texture and seasonings to re-create amazing food such as you celebrate here at MamaSezz!
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