Newsweek once called his advice “the state of the art in psycho-cardiology” – a lifestyle regimen best known for the stringency of its ultra-low-fat diet, but with equal emphasis on exercise and stress reduction. And in The Atlantic, the famous preventive medicine guru Dr. Dean Ornish has written an essay called Why Health Care Works Better than Disease Care. Dr. O is founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute.
And his research studies were the first to claim that lifestyle changes can reverse cardiovascular disease without drugs.
He’s a rare duck: a man with the letters M.D. after his name who shuns the prescription pad and Big Pharma’s domination of what’s been called “marketing-based medicine”. Instead, he has long advocated preventing – and even reversing – heart disease without drugs or surgery through changing your lifestyle. He actually recommends two different diets: the prevention diet and the reversal diet. The reversal diet is a very strict low-fat diet designed for people who have diagnosed heart disease.
Alas, so far I have yet to meet any heart patient who has been successful in sticking to this extremely restrictive diet for any significant length of time.
And, despite a considerable amount of scientific and media attention over the years, Dr. O’s heart-smart recommendations for a very low-fat diet, smoking cessation, aerobic exercise, stress management training and psychological support continue to create controversy in the mainstream medical community.
For example, consider the significantly higher fat content of dietary recommendations from the American Heart Association, and the popularity of fad diets (like high-fat, low-carb Atkins diet).
But here’s what Dr. O told Atlantic readers:
“In 2006, 1.3 million coronary angioplasty procedures were performed in the U.S. at an average cost of $48,399 each, or more than $60 billion. Over 448,000 coronary bypass operations were performed at a cost of $99,743 each, or more than $44 billion. This means more than $100 billion for these two operations.
“Many people are surprised to learn that randomized controlled trials published in The New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere showed that angioplasties and stents – common surgical procedures used to treat heart disease – do not prolong life or even prevent heart attacks in stable patients (i.e., at least 95% of those who receive them).
“And coronary bypass surgery prolongs life in less than 2% of patients who receive it.
“If we were truly practicing evidence-based medicine, our practice patterns would have shifted away from these expensive and relatively ineffective surgical treatments once these randomized controlled trials were published.
“Yet to many people, these approaches are still considered conservative or conventional medicine, while teaching people to walk, meditate, eat vegetables, and quit smoking – which has been shown to be more effective – is often called ‘alternative medicine’.
“Studies have shown that changing lifestyle could prevent up to 80% of all heart disease, and likely even more. Thus, the disease that accounts for more premature deaths and costs us more than any other illness is almost completely preventable, and even reversible, simply by changing lifestyle.”
It’s not an easy road that Dr. O is on, despite medical research that supports these lifestyle improvement theories. He’s up against formidable obstacles, including some erected by allies like the American Heart Association. You’d think they’d all be on the same page! But as Dr. O recently explained in this interview with the San Francisco Medical Society:
“My problem with the American Heart Association is that their position on dietary recommendations for heart health has been that people won’t make big changes. So we shouldn’t tell them and get too far ahead of the parade or we’ll lose our credibility.
“And that to me is a very paternalistic view of people. So heart patients get put on a 30% fat diet (his own recommendation is for an ultra-low 10% fat limit). Then, in most cases, their lipids (cholesterol numbers) do not respond very well and they are told that they have ‘failed diet’, and what they now need is a lifetime of statin medications.
“What I would do instead is walk the patient through the risks, the benefits, the costs, and side effects of drugs, angioplasty, bypass surgery and lifestyle changes. And then they can make an informed choice.”
Learn more about Dr. Dean Ornish and several bestselling books he has written, including Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease; Stress, Diet & Your Heart; Eat More, Weigh Less; Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish; and Love & Survival, 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health.