A Plant-Based Approach: In Conversation With Dr. Joel Kahn, “America’s Healthy Heart Doc”

Dr. Joel Kahn is no doubt one of the world’s busiest vegans. Not only is he a practicing holistic cardiologist, lecturer, best-selling author, and weekly podcaster, but he is also a successful restaurateur and dedicated husband and father. So much for the myth that a plant-based diet fails to provide adequate energy!

We recently spoke with “America’s Healthy Heart Doc” about his varied career, his guilty pleasures, and the benefits of a vegan diet.

Was there a revelatory moment in your life that first moved you to turn to veganism?

My entry into veganism was long ago, 1977, but not an inspired moment. I walked into the cafeteria in my freshman dormitory at the University of Michigan, saw dead and unattractive food choices, and saw a rainbow coloured salad bar. That day changed my life as I ate at that salad bar for the next two years and [never ate] animal products. I soon began reading books that informed me of the foundation for health in terms of the human body, the planet, and animal rights, and I was sold. As I learned more about the human body in medical school, I realized that this diet was a therapy to prevent and reverse disease. I am grateful for the unimaginative and unattractive foods in that dormitory as I have experienced superior health for over 40 years.

You refer to yourself as a ‘holistic cardiologist’. How does your approach differ from that of a cardiologist not versed in alternative medicine?

A common joke is a holistic cardiologist sees patients with a “whole list” of problems — wholistic! Indeed, holistic means a bigger tool box. My visits are long and include details on growing up, work experiences and environments in terms of toxic exposures, childhood and current eating habits in detail, sleep patterns, dental history, supplements, stress issues and management methods, social activities and support, and health goals. I can use Rx meds and procedures I was trained in for 30 years, but I more often rely on nutrition, stress management, fitness, fasting, sleep therapy, and herbs and supplements to address the root causes of symptoms or diseases.

Intermittent fasting has become an increasingly popular diet trend. In your opinion, what are the benefits of food restriction and in which cases do you usually recommend it?

I am a huge advocate of two forms of fasting. One is called time-restricted eating or fasting and takes use of the restorative response of the body to going 12-14 hours a day without eating. I try to go 8 PM to 10 AM every day. This allows time to complete metabolism and focus on repair, regeneration, and restoration of important processes in the body. It is not necessary to extend this to as much as 18 hours, as some advocate.

The second approach is called the fasting-mimicking diet, developed over many years by world-leading scientist Valter Longo, Ph.D. of the University of Southern California. This involves eating about 800 calories a day, for 5 days in a row, of plant foods low in sugar and protein and naturally high in fats and complex carbohydrates (like nuts and olives). This program is available as a commercially pre-packaged system and has the most science supporting it of any fasting program. I adopt it about every other month and have hundreds of patients do the same. 

With the help of your wife and son, you opened the Green­Space Café in Detroit. What inspired you to branch out from the medical field and take on the role of restaurateur?

Having eaten a vegan diet for 40 years, often all over the US and the world, I was fascinated by the process. It was also clear that most cities, including Detroit, were absent an upscale plant diner with a full bar. Hence, my son Daniel and I found a small café with a liquor license in a great community, and we had small goals of a 40-seat eatery. Good or bad, the space adjacent came on the market and we decided to knock out the wall and now seat over 100 with a 20-seat bar. We are glad for that decision as it is busy every night and we serve hundreds of people a day. It is a blast. 

How did you go about developing the menu for the Green­Space Café?

A principle I follow is if you want to succeed, surround yourself with people smarter than you. We did that before opening GreenSpace with chefs, consultants, friends, and community members. We had so much support to see us succeed and we are grateful for that love. The menu is constantly changing and evolving, and our chef Max is introducing some awesome new inspirations right now. 

Yours was the first plant-based restaurant in metro Detroit. How receptive was the public when you first opened? Have you noticed a changing attitude towards veganism since then?

There were other restaurants with plant options, but none in a large, attractive setting with juice and cocktails. We were crazy busy from day 1, and still have long waits on weekends (make a reservation, please). We are having an impact all over the city with many restaurants having added plant options, whether a steakhouse or a bar. It is a great thing to see happen as more and more people are breaking down the barrier that they do not eat vegan. Then they circle back to GreenSpace to see the upper end of the presentation. 

What’s your personal favorite dish on the GreenSpace menu?

Yes. [laughs] I really do like all of the items and rotate regularly to taste all of the entries. Overall I am fascinated by jackfruit. How we take it from that giant yellow spiked gourd to a whole food that can taste sweet, spicy, or BBQ flavoured is an exciting addition to the plant-based menu. We make a jackfruit-stuffed burrito with a poblano sauce that tickles my fancy every time.  

You’re a doctor, an author, a restaurant owner…we imagine that makes for a busy schedule! What meals do you gravitate toward to help you stay alert and nourished throughout the day? 

I need some living foods to power me. My favourite is sprouts, whether pea, broccoli, or radish. I eat them raw, in salads, on my burrito, or on a soup. It might be just an organic apple or grapes. It might be a large green salad as close to the garden it grew in as possible. I found that the life energy in these foods is a direct boost to my life energy and health. 

What’s your favourite plant-based treat — something that feels like a guilty pleasure, but is actually good for you?

Dark chocolate and cacao powder. Cacao has so many health benefits and the taste and appearance of chocolate. In a smoothie it adds a delicious rich flavour and colour. An organic dark chocolate peanut or almond butter cup makes me smile every time.  

You’ve written multiple books about veganism and the prevention of heart disease. Is there another book in the works?

My next book will go back to the world of integrative cardiology and be on heart prevention and reversal. Vegan diets are one tool but not the only tool, and we still lose so many people, many very young, to heart attacks and deaths. I am focused on saving 1 million people from suffering a heart attack before this decade is over.  

What’s the next chapter for you? 

I will practice medicine focusing on integrative cardiology for decades as it is a great joy, a great privilege, and a great need. However, I want to open more restaurants with my son, wife, and GreenSpace team, and feel the time is right to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. 


Photos courtesy of Dr. Joel Kahn