COHEN: A diet to prevent and reverse heart disease

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The Dean Ornish Program, developed by Dr. Dean Ornish, was the first diet and lifestyle program scientifically proven to reverse heart disease. Ornish is well known in the medical community because of his documented studies that show his diet program can result in an impressive reversal of heart blockage, once thought impossible without surgery or drugs. His first book, “Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease,” published in 1990, has been a longstanding New York Times bestseller. Ornish also has written a best-selling weight loss book called “Eat More, Weigh Less.”

Ornish presents two diets: the “Reversal Diet” and the “Prevention Diet.” The “Reversal Diet” is for people diagnosed with heart disease who want to lower their risk of heart attack and reduce the symptoms of the disease, such as chest pain. The “Prevention Diet” is recommended for people who do not have heart disease, but whose cholesterol levels are above 150, or for people with a ratio of total cholesterol to HDL less than 3.0. In practical terms, very little difference exists between the “Reversal” and “Prevention” diets. Not only has Ornish proved that his program can dramatically reverse or halt heart disease, he also has shown that it can decrease the medical costs associated with heart disease.

The Ornish diet emphasizes the consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and severely restricts the consumption of animal products, dietary fat, and refined carbohydrates. People are encouraged to eat smaller, more frequent meals. In addition to these dietary recommendations, the Ornish program involves comprehensive lifestyle changes, including moderate aerobic exercise, stress reduction techniques, peer support, smoking cessation and nutritional supplementation.

Ornish counsels people that we will find success not by restricting calories, but by watching the ones we eat. He breaks this down into foods that should be eaten all of the time, some of the time and none of the time.

Eat the following foods whenever you are hungry, until you are full: Beans and legumes, fruits, grains and vegetables.

Eat these foods only in moderation: nonfat dairy products and nonfat or very low-fat commercially available products.

These foods should be avoided: meat of all kinds (red, white, fish and fowl), oils and oil-containing products, avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, dairy products, sugar and simple sugar derivatives, alcohol, anything commercially prepared that has more than 2 grams of fat per serving. Egg whites, nonfat milk, and nonfat yogurt are allowed.

While the Ornish diet program has shown phenomenal success in preventing and reversing heart disease, there are critics of the program. One of the arguments against the program is that the dietary recommendations are too strict and, as a result, most people, especially those accustomed to eating a typical American diet, find it extremely difficult to follow the diet for an extended period of time. However, two studies related to this concern have shown that people can successfully adopt the dietary changes recommended.

Another criticism of the Ornish diet is that low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets tend to lower HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), and increase triglyceride levels. Critics also are concerned that the Ornish diet limits fat intake too severely and underemphasizes the importance of essential fatty acids in the prevention of heart disease. Ornish responds to these concerns by saying that low HDL levels in a person consuming a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet may not create the same risk for heart disease as the presence of low HDL cholesterol levels in a person consuming a high fat diet.

Because the Ornish diet is low in fat and calories, and may be deficient in calcium, vitamin B12 and iron, it is not recommended for individuals with increased caloric and nutrient needs such as pregnant and lactating women, children, adolescents and the elderly.

If you would like to know more about this diet, or are considering including it in your life, consult with your doctor first and make sure to read Ornish’s books.

While this diet can be very powerful in helping people prevent and reverse heart disease, it also is very restrictive. Try slowly incorporating some of his guidelines into your diet such as reducing your intake of fat and meat and increasing your intake of grains and vegetables.

• Rebecca Cohen is a board-certified holistic nurse and a certified wellness coach. Her Web site is www.partnering forchange.com.

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