Health & Food

The Dean Ornish Program; Does It Really Work?

The other day I was getting ready to leave work and I noticed a guy looking at the pamphlets and handouts on my desk. Whenever I see customers looking at the information on my desk I go up and introduce myself. The man asked if I could help him find foods that were less than 10% fat. Right away I thought he was referring to the Daily Value (10% of the Daily Value for fat), and I thought “this will be easy….”. I soon realized he meant less than 10% of the total calories. Yikes. That’s difficult. I soon found out this man was following the Dean Ornish program.

When following this program the key is to look at the calories from fat (listed next to the total calories), and make sure they are 10% or less of the total calories. Obviously high-fat foods, such as the almonds below, would not make the cut (150 total calories, 120 from fat, so almost 100% of the calories in these almonds are from fat.)Ornish Program 1

Nut, legume, and seed butter such as the soy butter below would not make the cut either.Ornish Program 2

What about a popcorn snack that is given a name that signifies “health”, such as the popcorn snack below (sorry, can’t give brand names on my blog, boo)? The total calories are 120, but the calories from fat are 20, which is almost 20%. Failure. On this diet, you’d have to pop your own popcorn, with very little oil.Ornish Program 3

And what about fish? The fish below is orange roughy, which is a light white fish. Sadly the calories from fat make up more than 10% of the total calories, so this is out too.Ornish Program 4

What about this sports bar, below? Nope, too much fat.Ornish Program 5

And you better believe that salad dressings are not allowed, unless they are fat-free (fat-free and also loaded with sugar and sodium……).

Have we finally found something we can eat? I think so! Cereal. The calories from fat are about 5%, so this is allowed.Ornish Program 6
You can read more about the Dean Ornish Program here(source: WHFoods) and here (source: WebMD). Dean Ornish’s website does provide a very detailed list of the foods you can eat on this plan, which is helpful (it includes hummus made without oil or tahini. Yuck).

In short, these are the foods to emphasize and avoid this program (source);

Individuals following the Ornish Program are encouraged to eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and soybean products in unlimited quantities.

Individuals following the Ornish Program must avoid all meat and dairy products, except egg whites, nonfat milk, and nonfat yogurt. To adhere to the strict limitation on dietary fat intake, individuals on the Ornish diet must restrict the consumption of plant foods that contain high amounts of fat, including all vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados. All caffeinated beverages must be eliminated, and the consumption of alcoholic beverages is discouraged.

His website provides a food pyramid that is very helpful, and it indicates that fish such as salmon and mackerel are allowed on occasion, as well as healthy oils, nuts, and flaxseed. So lots of grains and fresh fruits and veggies, and a few almonds, every now and then.Ornish Program 7If you check out his website you will see he does provide some of his clinical research. I find it strange, however, that he only provides one heart disease study, and it’s weak, at best. There weren’t many people in the study, most of them were males, and the control group (the group not following the plan) was simply asked to follow the recommendations of their doctor (why not an RD? The control group should at least be somewhat realistic). The results of the experimental group’s labs and cardiac events were compared to the control group at 1 and 5 years. There was a “greater improvement with the experimental group as compared with the control group”. Well, no crap! This study would have been much more valid had he added a third group; a “high fat” group, or a “high protein” group. If the Dean Ornish (experimental) group had done better after 5 years compared to a control, a high fat, and a high protein group, then perhaps this study would have effectively convinced me of the benefits of this program.

I’m sure there is other evidence to support this (although I could not find it, in regards to heart health), but what about evidence that suggests that carbohydrates are really what’s making us so unhealthy? According to the book good Calories, Bad Calories carbohydrates are mainly to blame for the obesity epidemic. Gary Taubes, the author of this book, provides pages and pages of research that suggests carbohydrates are mainly to blame for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some other chronic diseases. In his book, he writes;

On a diet of 10% fat, two out of every three men will have small, dense LDL and, as a result, a predicted threefold higher risk of heart disease. The same pattern holds true in women and in children, but the percentages with small, dense LDL are lower. Some research suggests that the more saturated fat in the diet, the larger and fluffier the LDL-a beneficial effect.

Did you know that when you get labs from your doctor, which indicate your LDL levels (“bad cholesterol”) it’s really just telling you how much cholesterol is packed into your LDL particles? More and more research is saying that the better test is one that measures the size of your LDL particles. Smaller and more dense LDL seems to be worse than larger and fluffier LDL.Ornish Program 8

And what about the Mediterranean diet? This diet has been shown over and over again to have a beneficial effect on heart health, and it’s 25-35% fat. Enough said.

Who is to say that the intense restrictions of the Dean Ornish plan aren’t what really makes the person following the plan “healthier”? You can’t really eat out at restaurants, and you can’t eat at other people’s houses for dinner (or any other meal) without being a major burden. You are restricted from the gravitational pull that is our “unhealthy eating environment”. You are shielded from society’s ability to grab your appetite and rouse it all day long with food photos and smells and noises. While you still may see those pictures and hear those noises and smell those smells, you can’t have them, so they don’t really affect you (and if they do effect you still, you probably won’t be able to follow this plan for too long).

I’m not saying that I disagree with the Dean Ornish program, but to me it just sounds like another strict diet plan that “works” because you end up eating less crap and you have less food from which to choose (read Lauren’s post about “Boring Yourself Thin“) If you make anyone actually stop and think about every single thing they put in their mouth (such as with this diet) they are going to most likely eat healthier. The man I was talking to at work left with a cart full of brown rice, figs, and canned beans. As this man said, “these are my staple foods because most everything else has too much fat”.

QUESTION: Have you read about Dean Ornish? What are your thoughts?

The Chicago Tribune recently published this great article about fat. Check it out if you’re unsure about good vs. bad fats, and their sources.

About author


Hi, my name is Rebecca Houston and I am a writer. I write about health, healthy food and daily meal plan for various websites.
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