A Deep Dive into the Dean Ornish Diet Program

A Deep Dive into the Dean Ornish Diet Program

Obesity and cardiac health challenges are major epidemics in our culture today. Sometimes, the best solutions for challenges these massive come from a fresh perspective.

When it comes to matters of heart health and nutrition, Dr. Dean Ornish is a prominent figure whose work has revolutionized the way we think about wellness. He has dedicated his career to uncovering the remarkable potential of lifestyle and dietary changes to reverse heart disease and improve overall health.

In this article, we take a deep dive into Dr. Ornish’s findings and the dietary guidelines laid out in Ornish Nutrition — a diet developed by Dr. Ornish himself. From the benefits of this diet to an overview of what types of food to eat, this guide takes you through everything you need to know about the Ornish Diet program.

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Keep reading to discover what foods to eat and what to avoid when following the Ornish Diet! You’ll see it aligns beautifully with the whole food plant-based model we follow at Whole Harvest.

Who is Dr. Dean Ornish?

Dr. Dean Ornish

Dr. Dean Ornish is a well-respected physician and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He's also the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to pioneering research on lifestyle medicine.

Coined first by epidemiologist Ernst Wynder, the term lifestyle medicine is used broadly to describe changes to a person’s diet, lifestyle habits, and physical activity to improve their overall health.

According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, lifestyle medicine can be loosely defined as:

“ — the use of evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic approaches, such as a predominately whole food, plant-based diet, physical activity, sleep, stress management, tobacco cessation, and other nondrug modalities, to prevent, treat, and, oftentimes, reverse the lifestyle-related chronic disease that’s all too prevalent.”

Dr. Ornish helped to further popularize the concept of lifestyle medicine with his research and publications, especially in the realm of heart health and diet, ultimately cementing him as a pivotal figure in the field of lifestyle medicine. He's recognized for his groundbreaking work in proving how comprehensive lifestyle changes can reverse severe heart disease without surgical intervention.

What is the Ornish Diet?

The Ornish Diet — also known as the Ornish Reversal Diet — is a whole foods plant-based diet plan created by Dr. Dean Ornish. It emphasizes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, while significantly reducing fats, refined carbohydrates, and animal protein.

Dr. Dean Ornish DietAt its core, the Ornish Diet is centered around the quality and source of foods within a person’s diet. This type of diet places less emphasis on traditional dieting factors like calorie counting or restrictive eating, focusing instead on developing a more well-rounded sense of nutrition using plant-based foods.

The governing philosophy that has influenced Dr. Ornish and the Ornish Diet is the idea that our diet is a powerful tool that can undo the damage caused by poor nutrition and lifestyle habits. As a result, the Ornish Diet is also commonly referred to as the “Undo It” Diet thanks to its powerful ability to help reverse the negative effects of serious health conditions like heart disease.

undoit book

Dr. Ornish coined the name Undo It Diet himself after the publication of his groundbreaking book, Undo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.

Can the Ornish Diet Actually Reverse Heart Disease?

reversing heart disease

If you are new to the Ornish Diet, you may find yourself wondering — can this diet actually prevent and reverse the effects of heart disease?

While every person is different and has unique medical needs, there is compelling evidence to support the idea that the Ornish Diet can prevent and even reverse heart disease and other health conditions. In one study known as the Lifestyle Heart Trial, 48 patients with moderate to severe coronary heart disease were randomized into either an intensive lifestyle change (experimental) group or a usual-care (control) group.

Of this study’s many key results, one of the most compelling was that the experimental group experienced significantly fewer cardiac events than the control group. While the control group experienced 2.25 events per patient over five years, the experimental group only experienced 0.89 events per patient.

For more than 37 years, Dr. Ornish and the team at Ornish Lifestyle Medicine have researched the effects of major lifestyle and dietary changes on the progression and prevention of heart disease.

Additionally, while anyone can benefit from following the Ornish Diet, it is specifically focused on preventing and reversing heart disease.

The Ornish apporach is structured around four main components:

  1. A low-fat, whole food plant-based diet (WFPB)
  2. Moderate exercise
  3. Stress management
  4. Emotional support

The dietary component of Dr. Ornish’s lifestyle medicine program strives to remove “good” and “bad” labels from food by instead measuring the healthiness of foods on a 1 to 5 scale. Foods in Group 1 (such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and soy products) are categorized as the healthiest foods, while foods in Group 5 (like refined sugars and processed goods) are categorized as the least healthy.

The Benefits of the Ornish Reversal Diet

Wholefood plant based benefits

The benefits of the Ornish Reversal Diet are profound.

Beyond preventing and reversing heart disease, the diet has been linked to weight loss, lower inflammation, reduced risk of diabetesa, certain types of cancer, and improved mental health.

Let’s quickly review each of these benefits to better understand the advantages of the Ornish Diet:

  • Reduced Risk of Cancer & Disease: Dr. Ornish's research has shown that the Ornish Diet can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer by lowering cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and inflammation. These factors play an especially crucial role in preventing heart-related issues.
  • Weight Loss: The emphasis on whole, plant-based foods and reduced fat intake can lead to sustainable weight loss. This weight loss is not just about aesthetics; it's about reducing the strain on your heart and improving your overall health. Moreover, with a focus on eliminating over-processed foods from your diet, weight loss also occurs as bloating diminishes and you lose water weight gained from consuming too much refined sugar and salt.

  • Lower Inflammation: Inflammation is a common precursor to various chronic diseases, including heart disease. By following the Ornish Diet, which is rich in anti-inflammatory foods, you can potentially lower your body's inflammation levels. This is great not only for promoting better heart health but also for managing other chronic health conditions involving inflammation.

  • Mental Health: Our mental health is deeply impacted by our dietary choices. While reducing the risk of disease is certainly a main focus of the Ornish diet, this diet can also help reduce the negative effects of various mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. For some, it can even be an effective alternative to traditional medication-based treatments. (Though you should always consult with a mental health professional before making this switch!)

A Common Critique of the Dr. Dean Ornish Diet and What It Leaves Out

As with any dietary approach, there have been critiques of the Ornish Diet.
Some critics argue that its low-fat nature could lead to nutrient deficiencies. However, proponents of the diet point out that it emphasizes nutrient-dense foods and that careful planning prevents deficiencies.

In any dietary or lifestyle change, it is always important to involve your primary healthcare provider, as well as any secondary providers you may regularly visit (such as mental health professionals, nutritionists, physical therapists, etc.).
Keeping your medical team involved as you transition to the Ornish diet is the best way to ensure you are properly nourishing your body and avoiding deficiencies effectively.

What Can You Eat on the Ornish Diet?

foods you can eat

The Ornish Diet is centered around eating low-fat, plant-based, whole foods.
To put this more simply, this means that the Ornish Diet is similar to a vegan diet and uses whole food ingredients rather than processed and pre-packed products.

With this in mind, here’s an overview of what you can eat on the Ornish diet:

What to Eat

  • Fruits and vegetables: Rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Whole grains: Such as brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, and peas provide protein and fiber.
  • Soy products: Tofu and tempeh offer plant-based protein sources.
  • Nuts and seeds: Good sources of healthy fats, protein, and essential nutrients.

What to Limit

  • Dairy: Limited consumption of low-fat dairy products is allowed.
  • Egg whites: Eggs are limited due to their cholesterol content.
  • Non-fat dairy products: Consume these in moderation.

What to Avoid

  • Meat: Avoid or greatly reduce consumption.
  • Processed foods: Highly processed and refined foods are discouraged.
  • Added sugars: Minimize consumption of sugary foods and beverages.
  • Full-fat dairy: High-fat dairy products are not recommended.

Best Resources to Learn About the Ornish Diet

If you want to learn more about the Ornish Diet, the research supporting it, and how to begin making the transition, then you’re in luck — we have curated a list of four of the best resources for you:

  1. Favorite Books about the Ornish Diet: Undo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases and Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease.

  2. Favorite Cookbook for Ornish Diet Recipes: Dr. Ornish’s The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health.

  3. Favorite Podcast Episodes About the Ornish Diet: "Dr. Dean and Anne Ornish want you to live better | Rich Roll Podcast"

  4. Favorite Website for All Things Related to the Ornish Diet: The official Ornish Lifestyle Medicine website.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Dean Ornish's diet is a comprehensive approach to reversing heart disease, promoting weight loss, and improving overall health.

By choosing foods lower in fat and higher in fiber, and incorporating stress management and exercise, you're not only treating your body right; you're actively working to 'undo' the effects of chronic disease.

With a wealth of resources available, starting your journey with the Ornish Diet has never been easier. It’s especially easy when you have a meal delivery service which aligns with it.

Whole Harvest is 100% dedicated to oil-free, whole food plant-based recipes. Nearly all of our meals fall into alignement with the Ornish diet and support it. Learn more at wholeharvest.com.

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