Dr. Dean Ornish: A Simple Choice for Powerful Health Benefits
The renowned physician and researcher on food addiction, the protein myth, and the power of love and connection to strengthen our health.
For 35 years, Dr. Dean Ornish has made our health his top priority. With gentle authority, he is not afraid to opine on vegans, the environment, or sex toys as a healthy marital accoutrement. He is an adviser to presidents, a frequent best-selling author, and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, a nonprofit researching diet and lifestyle choices on health and disease prevention. “We were the first to prove that heart disease could be reversed by changing diet and lifestyle in randomized control studies,” he says. “We also found that these same guidelines and lifestyle changes could slow, stop, or reverse the progression of many other life-threatening conditions.”
His research is our gain, as Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease is the first lifestyle program to be covered by Medicare. One of his newest ventures, The Ornish Spectrum, a program currently available in seven states, with a fourfold focus on diet, stress management, movement, and community support, is not just about disease prevention but joyous and engaged living.
On Diet Fads
There’s so much confusion out there, yet the science is all saying that a whole-foods, plant-based diet that’s low in refined carbs like sugar and white flour is the most healthy way to eat. With other lifestyle changes—moving more, stressing less, and loving more—then everything we measure gets even better. This is powerful and hopeful, and we don’t have to make it more complicated than this.
On the Myth of “Not Enough Protein”
Rather than being so concerned about “Am I getting enough protein in my diet?”—which, as long as you’re eating a variety of fruits and vegetables in a plant-based diet, is easy to do—I think people should be more concerned about the type of protein they’re getting, which is a major determinant in our health and well-being.
A study that came out in March found that people who consumed large amounts of animal protein had a 75 percent higher risk of premature death from all causes, a 400 percent higher risk of premature death from cancers, and a 500 percent increased risk of death from type 2 diabetes.
A plant-protein-based diet is protective, and an animal-protein-based diet substantially increases the risk of death and disease from a variety of causes.
On Food Addiction
I’m not a big fan of calling certain foods addictive, because addictive has such a pejorative quality. If you really enjoy something, is that addictive? If you love making love with your spouse, is that addictive because you like to do it several times, or is it just healing and pleasure? You know, addiction is in the eyes of the beholder, so I’m not sure that’s the most effective way to characterize it.
On the Cost of Loneliness
The real epidemic in our country isn’t just heart disease or diabetes; it’s loneliness and depression and isolation. There are thousands of studies showing that people who are lonely and depressed and isolated are three to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely, because they don’t have a sense of love and connection and community—in part because you’re more likely to abuse yourself, and in part because of mechanisms we don’t fully understand. It’s not enough to just focus on behaviors or give people information. We have to work at this deeper level.
On a Virtuous Cycle
More than people like to be healthy, they like to be free and in control, and as soon as I tell somebody, “Eat this and don’t eat that; do this and don’t do that,” they generally want to do the exact opposite. Once you call foods good or bad, it’s a very small next step to say, “I’m a bad person because I ate bad food,” and then they might as well finish the cheeseburger at that point.
Studies show that the more people changed their overall diet, the more they improved. Instead of doing this as a diet you get on or a diet you get off, with all that shame and guilt and humiliation and anger that comes when you feel like you’ve gone off of it, . . . they got into a cycle of virtue, where “If I do this, I feel good, but if I do that, I don’t feel good, so maybe I’ll do more of this and less of that.” And because it comes out of their own experience, that makes it sustainable.
On the Power of Food Choice
Many people are shocked that the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transportation chain. Livestock is now using 30 percent of the entire earth’s land surface for pasture. Clearing new pastures for livestock is a major driver of deforestation. Seventy percent of the forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. More than 8 billion livestock are being maintained in the U.S., which eat about seven times as much grain as consumed by the entire U.S. population.
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed when people hear another story about how the Antarctic ice cap is melting down, and it’s like, Gosh, what can I do as one person to make a difference? Overwhelm leads to inaction. But in fact, when we realize that something as fundamental as what we eat each day has a direct effect not only on our health but on the planet’s health, that can be very meaningful. What I’ve learned is that if it’s meaningful, it’s sustainable.
On Feeding the World
About 20 percent of the people in the U.S. go to bed hungry each night, and about half of the world’s population is malnourished. It turns out that if you eat more plant-based foods and less red meat, it’s not only better for the planet’s health and for our health, but it also frees up a lot of resources to feed people. When you eat higher on the food chain, it takes 10 times more resources than it does when we eat lower on the food chain. What’s good for you is good for the planet.