Feature Archive

The Ornish Diet

What It Is

Unlike other diet books that make big promises, Eat More, Weigh Less, by Dean Ornish, MD, soft-pedals the health claims for this diet for the masses, adapted from his regimen to reverse heart disease. Ornish is well known in the medical community because of his success in reversing blockages to the heart, once thought impossible without surgery or drugs. Ornish also runs his own health and diet site here at WebMD which can give you additional details about his plan.

Unlike other books that are full of scientific-sounding theories and explanations without clinical studies to back them up, Ornish's explanations are simple and well supported. His main point is that eating a high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian diet will not only help you stay healthy, or get you there, but also will help you lose weight.

This is accomplished, according to Ornish, by a combination of diet and exercise that allows the body's fat-burning mechanism to work most effectively.

What You Can Eat

Ornish counsels 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.

The following can be eaten whenever you are hungry, until you are full:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Fruits -- anything from apples to watermelon, from raspberries to pineapples
  • Grains
  • Vegetables

These should be eaten in moderation:

  • Nonfat dairy products -- skim milk, nonfat yogurt, nonfat cheeses, nonfat sour cream, and egg whites
  • Nonfat or very low-fat commercially available products --from Life Choice frozen dinners to Haagen-Dazs frozen yogurt bars and Entenmann's fat-free desserts (but if sugar is among the first few ingredients listed, put it back on the shelf)

These should be avoided:

  • Meat of all kinds -- red and white, fish and fowl (if we can't give up meat, we should at least eat as little as possible)
  • Oils and oil-containing products, such as margarine and most salad dressings
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dairy products (other than the nonfat ones above)
  • Sugar and simple sugar derivatives -- honey, molasses, corn syrup, and high-fructose syrup
  • Alcohol
  • Anything commercially prepared that has more than two grams of fat per serving

That's it. If you stick to this plan, you will meet Ornish's recommendation of less than 10% of your calories from fat, without the need to count fat grams or calories. Ornish suggests eating a lot of little meals because this diet makes you feel hungry more often. You will feel full faster, and you'll eat more food without increasing the number of calories.

Ornish's regimen is more than mere diet, he claims. He is a stickler about incorporating at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, or an hour three times a week, and using some kind of stress-management technique, which might include meditation, massage, psychotherapy, or yoga.

How It Works

Ornish suggests that our metabolism was set back in Fred Flintstone's era, when we didn't know where our next meal was coming from and there were times when little food was available. The body naturally wanted to hang onto all the energy it could and would try to store any extra energy as fat. Nowadays, most of us have almost continuous access to food, but our bodies haven't adapted to this new way of living.

Because the rate at which you are burning calories can decrease when you consume fewer calories, you may hit a plateau soon after you began a new, lower-calorie diet. For most of us, the pounds seem to melt away for a delightful week or two, but then that scale doesn't budge. Our weight stays the same, sometimes for a week, sometimes much longer.

But Ornish argues that with this eat-all-you-want, eat-as-often-as-you-are-hungry routine, your metabolism stays the same, or better yet, even increases. The high-fiber content also slows down the absorption of food into the digestive system, so you feel full longer with small portions than you would eating calorie-restricted small portions. The complex carbohydrates don't cause your blood sugar, the level of glucose in the blood, to yo-yo. It remains more stable, and so do you.