The Ornish Diet (cont.)

Ornish gives more than a passing nod to physical activity, encouraging long, slow exercise that uses body fat as fuel. Moderate exercise done on a regular basis revs up your resting metabolism, while some have suggested that short periods of intense exercise decrease metabolism.

Although he doesn't claim that meditation will make the pounds dissolve, his regimen incorporates it as a way of quieting your mind, increasing self-awareness, and coping with stress. He calls it food for the soul. "When your soul is fed, you have less need to overeat," he writes in Eat More, Weigh Less. "When you directly experience the fullness of life, then you have less need to fill the void with food."

What the Experts Say

Mostly, Ornish gets kudos from the medical community for his highly restricted diet and healthy lifestyle routine. His documented studies showing a reversal of coronary blockage are indeed impressive. Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says: "His diet is one of the only popular diet plans that is firmly rooted in science. It not only brings weight loss without counting calories, but it also brings good overall health. It reverses heart disease, cuts the risk of cancer, makes diabetes and hypertension more manageable, and sometimes even makes them go away."

The drawback is that the plan requires learning completely new eating habits, which many consider drastic. Barnard, the author of Food for Life and several other books on health, adds, "But after the first week or two, the plan becomes self-rewarding, because the weight loss is virtually automatic. People have better energy and they just want to stick to it."

On the other hand, Robert H. Eckel, MD, chair of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association and a professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, is doubtful. He suggests that only the most committed will stick to Ornish's routine: "Because it is so rigid and doesn't allow a lot of food choices for those used to the Western diet, not many people will stay on it for the long term. Many people get tired of eating food with such a low fat content."

Frank Hu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, is critical of how severely fat is limited on the diet. "The data from numerous studies show that it is the type of fat, rather than the total amount, which is related to cardiovascular health," he says. "Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils actually protect against cardiovascular incidents, but Ornish doesn't distinguish the good fats from the bad fats -- such as trans fats, which come from margarine sticks and cookies and crackers, and animal fats." For example, Hu says, Ornish advocates limiting the consumption of fish and nuts, and Hu adds, "There is strong evidence that the fat in them is protective against coronary heart disease in both epidemiological studies and clinical trials."

Food for Thought

Vegetarians, or those willing to become so for the long term, may be the only dieters who will find success with this plan. The recommendation to eat smaller, more frequent meals requires that dieters change their eating schedules, which could be difficult for some. Other than that, this plan has what it takes to lose weight and keep it off, and receives high marks from nutrition experts.

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD February 2004.

SOURCES: Ornish, D. Eat More, Weigh Less, 2000, Perennial Currents. Frank Hu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, Harvard School of Public Health. Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Robert H. Eckel, MD, professor, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver.

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Last Editorial Review: 5/20/2005