Dean Ornish and his wife Anne have a formula for achieving great health and avoiding or reversing heart disease and cancer, as well as the risk factors that lead to these. Ornish was the first to show coronary heart disease could be reversed by a very low fat diet (Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, 1995). With the help of his wife Anne, a yoga and meditation instructor, they direct the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a nonprofit program based in Sausalito, California. For decades they have been restoring health to people willing to follow their program.
As presented in their latest book UnDo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases, their program consists of four parts: Eat Well, Move More, Stress Less and Love More. Each of these is described in detail with many case examples. The book also has recipes from the “Ornish Kitchen” and guidance for a two-week diet and how to stock your kitchen. Healthy nutrition is the centerpiece of the Ornish program.
I first listened to the book on audible.com. The authors narrate the text which has additional benefit as they express their commitment and experience with this lifestyle approach. I am impressed by the major role Anne Ornish plays in complementing her famous husband. There is no doubt that this nutrition and lifestyle approach restores health and avoids chronic disease, especially cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
The whole food plant-based diet (vegan) espoused by the Ornishes is one well established option for optimal health. However, the diet has challenges in regularly supplying all the micronutrients and protein, and only 3% of the American public are willing to eat only plants.1 Chris Kresser, M.S., L.Ac, a nutrition expert I follow, spent two years as a vegan and switched to a healthy Paleo diet because he experienced better health.2
I have three criticisms of this book. The first is that the Ornishes and other proponents of a whole food plant-based diet believe that eating any foods from animals is bad and causes disease. They selectively cite references including animal studies to support their beliefs. However, they seem to ignore the health and disease reversal studies that use a healthy Mediterranean diet with intermittent fasting, such as the Bredesen Protocol for reversing cognitive decline (The End of Alzheimer’s, 2017). They hold on to the notion that meat causes diabetes when the recent epidemic of type 2 diabetes is clearly caused by the rising use of refined carbohydrates and sugar that only come from processed plants. To be fair, this book criticizes the use of processed carbohydrates and sugar.
My second criticism is that the Ornishes hold on to the notion that all saturated fat is bad and to be avoided. It has become clear that healthy saturated fats from natural food sources such as nuts, seeds, avocado and tree oils (olive and coconut) are healthy and reduce disease. Processed saturated fats found in chips and French fries are to be avoided along with trans fats and fried foods.
My third criticism is that there is very little detail about the reversal of specific chronic diseases beyond cardiovascular disease. No description or examples are given for the reversal of type 2 diabetes, auto-immune diseases, GI problems and cognitive decline. The Ornish diet and lifestyle undoubtedly prevents most chronic diseases but disease reversal is underdeveloped here.
UnDo It! will be welcomed by the vegan community because it will validate what they already know. Health advocates who want serious disease reversal methods will be disappointed.
As Chris Kresser recently wrote, there is no diet that is optimal for everyone, and when healthy eaters argue with each other, big food wins.3 In America our culture has moved toward a diet that is killing us with overweight, obesity, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
Choose a diet that is right for you based on real food and superfoods that restore health. Dean and Anne Ornish have certainly made a contribution to this end.
Dr. Scherger is an Eisenhower Health Primary Care 365 physician and core faculty member of the Family Medicine Residency Program.
References: 1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country; 2) https://chriskresser.com/why-you-should-think-twice-about-vegetarian-and-vegan-diets; 3) (https://chriskresser.com/what-is-the-optimal-human-diet/).