When it comes to skepticism around the low-fat, plant-centered diet he prescribes to reverse heart disease,Dean Ornish, MD, has heard every excuse.
“‘Is it fun for me, or is it good for me? Am I going to live longer, or is it just going toseemlonger?’ and all those tired clichés,” he says, reeling off a few.
Of course, it works, too, and The Ornish Diet just tied (with the Mediterranean diet) as No. 1 for heart health inU.S. News & World Report‘s 2019 diet rankings.
But, Ornish says, the principles in his new book,Undo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases, written with his wife and business partner,Anne Ornish, can helpallof us live longer and better by following the research-backed benefits of their four-pronged approach to good health: eat well, move more, stress less, love more.
“It’s really not that hard,” Dean promises.
Low-tech lifestyle changes really work — and quickly.
It’s common for people to be skeptical that such basic measures as improving diet, moderate exercise, smart stress management and fostering emotional health can have such a big impact.
“When I started doing this work 40 years ago and we were able to show for the first time that you could actually reverse heart disease, what was so striking was that within just a few weeks people with such severe angina or chest pain that they couldn’t walk across the street without pain or make love with their spouse or play with their kids or go back to work were pain free and could do all of those things,” says Dean.
The strategies inUndo It!are backed by 40 years of solid research, and they’re so effective that the Ornishes’ program is now covered by Medicare and a growing list of insurance companies.
“We’ve been using very high-tech, expensive, state-of-the-art scientific measures to prove how powerful these very simple, low-tech and low-cost interventions can be,” he says.
For example, one study found that these lifestyle changes could impact more than 500 genes—activating good ones and turning off harmful ones—in just three months.
“We found that we could actually reverse aging at a cellular level by lengthening telomeres,” says Dean. Located at the ends of chromosomes, telomeres help protect DNA from damage and they shorten as we age, a process worsened by poor diet, lack of exercise, runaway stress and loneliness.
But it’s not only about diet.
“When people think of our work, they think of diet,” says Dean. “But it has always included all four of these components. If you just address the diet without addressing these other issues, it’s very hard for people to make sustainable changes.”
A catastrophic medical event—or fear of one—often is what brings people to the Ornishes’ program, but it’s not enough to make it stick.
“That fear works for the first couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months,” says Anne, who created and directs Empower, the digital platform of Ornish Lifestyle Medicine and is a trained mindfulness meditation instructor.
“I think we all know about eating well and moving more — that’s something that we’re pretty well trained in our society to recognize,” she explains. But stress management and forging deeper, healthier connections with other people are no less important.
It starts with finding your “why.” “Ultimately, what’s motivating you to live longer and better is a very personal question,” she says. “As we experience more and live and feel more connected in a meaningful life, we’re going to make the time and find ways to make healthier choices.”
And it’s not just about heart health.
Although the Ornishes’ work is most known for addressing heart health,Undo It!takes a broad view of overall wellness — what Dean calls the “unifying theory.”
“We tend to think of different diseases, like heart disease and diabetes and prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, as being fundamentally different from each other when they’re really not. I was certainly trained to think of them that way,” Dean explains.
“But what I’m beginning to realize is that they’re all different manifestations of the same different, disordered biological mechanisms, like chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, changes in the microbiome and so on.”
All of these mechanisms are influenced by diet, physical activity, stress and relationships.
“The more diseases we study, the more mechanisms we look at, the more reasons we have to show why that’s true,” Dean says. “That’s one of the reasons why so many people often have several of these at the same time. They’ll have diabetesandhigh blood pressureandheart disease and so on, because those really are manifestations of the same underlying disorder.”
In a way, this helps simplify health and wellness.
“We’ve found that the same lifestyle program not only could reverse heart disease but also early-stage prostate cancer — and, likely, by extension, early-stage breast cancer,” says Dean. “We found we could lower high cholesterol and blood pressure and weight to the point where many people, under their doctor’s supervision, were able to reduce or get off medications they were told they’d have to take for the rest of their lives.”
Focus on the benefits.
Not only can lifestyle measures be more effective and cheaper than medication and surgery, they have a better track record for adherence.
Up to two-thirds of people who are prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs aren’t taking them after just four to six months, Dean notes, and up to 30 percent don’t even bother to get prescriptions filled. But 85-90 percent of participants in the Ornishes’ nine-week program complete all 72 hours, and up to 85 percent are still following it a year later.
“That’s because what you gain is so much more than what you give up,” says Dean. “When you make big changes in lifestyle, you really feel better quickly. You feel better so quickly that it really reframes the reason for making these changes from fear of something bad happening, which is really hard to sustain, to joy and pleasure and feeling good, which really are sustainable.
“We’re finally at a convergence of forces that, after 40 years, are finally making this the right idea at the right time,” says Dean.