It’s no secret that diet and lifestyle play a large role in health, but what exactly can you do to help protect your body from disease? Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the pioneers in functional and integrative medicine for medical doctors and founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, found through a randomized clinical trial that the combination of diet, exercise, social support and stress reduction could help reverse coronary artery disease … and he believes those same lifestyle factors and following the Ornish diet could play a role in the prevention and/or reversal of other chronic diseases as well, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
“What’s good for your heart is good for your brain and vice versa,” Ornish said in an interview with CNN. “Prior studies have shown moderate changes in lifestyle can slow the rate of progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s. So, my hypothesis is that more intense lifestyle changes could stop or even reverse the decline.”
Ornish Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Through his research over the years, including in the study on reversing coronary heart disease, Ornish has seen dramatic effects of making healthy lifestyle changes for preventing chronic disease. Here are the four main factors of the Ornish diet and lifestyle protocol:
On the Ornish diet, particularly in the heart disease study, people consume a mainly plant-based diet that is low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables. Here are the principles of the Ornish diet:
- Eat mostly plants in natural form
- Limit bad carbohydrate foods
- Consume just four grams of healthy fat per day
- Focus on plant-based proteins
- Moderate sodium intake
- Limit caffeine consumption, mostly from tea
- Supplement with multivitamins, B12, fish oil and potentially calcium.
The top foods to consume for this way of eating include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, some nuts and seeds, and very limited amount of egg whites and nonfat milk or yogurt, along with green tea.
Foods to avoid include anything high in fat, particularly unhealthy fats, along with excessive caffeine and refined oils and carbs.
The interventions implemented in this plan include several forms of exercise, including the following:
- Strength training
- Walking and other aerobic exercise at least 30 minutes a day (three to five hours per week)
Ornish recommends following what he calls the FITT Principle of exercise:
- F – Frequency (How often to exercise)
- I – Intensity (How hard to exercise)
- T – Time (How long to exercise)
- T – Type (The type of exercise)
For aerobic training, the Ornish diet and protocol recommends:
- Frequency: Several times a day, three to six times a week
- Intensity: Determined with a treadmill test, 45 percent to 80 percent of max capacity
- Time: 30–60 minutes at a time, three to five hours per week
- Type: Walking, jogging, dancing, biking, swimming, rowing, cross-country skiing, etc.
For strength training:
- Frequency: Two to three times per week with a rest day between
- Intensity: A weight you can comfortably do 12–15 reps with, with fairly light to somewhat hard exertion during lifting
- Time: One set of each exercise to start, with 30–90 seconds of rest between sets, then work up to 10–15 reps of eight to 10 resistance exercise that focus on large muscle groups
- Type: Free weight, barbells, ankle weights, heavy hands, weight training machines, resistance bands, body weight exercises, etc.
3. Stress Management
Daily stress management is an important part of this protocol. Utilize common stress relievers for at least an hour per day to keep your mind intact and help your body, including:
- Breathing exercises
- Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation
4. Love and Social Support
This is an underrated part of health but something the Ornish diet and protocol focuses on. According to Ornish.com:
Love and intimacy — our ability to connect with ourselves and others, is at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing. If a new drug had the same impact, virtually every doctor in the country would be recommending it for his or her patients. It would be malpractice not to prescribe it — yet, with few exceptions, we doctors do not learn much about the healing power of love, intimacy, and transformation in our medical training.
Awareness is the first step in healing, both individually and socially. Part of the value of science is to increase the level of awareness of how much these choices matter that we make each day. Not just a little, but a lot, and not just to the quality of life but also the quantity of life – to our survival. When we understand how important these issues are, then we can do something about it. These include:
- spending more time with our friends and family
- communication skills
- group support
- confession, forgiveness, and redemption
- compassion, altruism, and service
When we increase the love and intimacy in our lives, we also increase the health, joy, and meaning in our lives.
One of the keys here is communication. To be a good communicator and listener, Ornish says you should:
- ID feelings
- Express feelings
- Be empathetic instead of sympathetic
- Acknowledge others’ feelings and practice fluent listening
What are the benefits of the Ornish diet and protocol? Here are some major effects on chronic disease backed by research:
- Positive effects on blood sugar
- Reduced heart disease risk for those with diabetes
- Slowed down growth of prostate cancer cells
- Improvements in depression markers
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Positive changes in gene expression
- Lengthened telomeres to promote longevity
- Dr. Dean Ornish has been at the forefront of functional and integrative medicine, and through his Ornish diet and protocol, he’s found ways to help reverse and prevent many chronic diseases.
- By focusing on a healthy, mostly plant-based diet, exercising daily with aerobic and strength training workouts, managing stress, and having a positive social support circle, people can limit their risk for disease and even reverse some conditions.
- Research shows that the Ornish protocol can have positive effects on blood sugar, heart disease risk, prostate cancer cells, depression markers, cholesterol levels, gene expression, telomeres and longevity, and more.