This Low-Fat Weight Loss Plan Is Also Good for Your Heart

With the focus on animal proteins and high-fat foods in today’s popular diets like paleo, keto diet, and Whole30, it’s hard to believe that just two decades ago, low-fat diets, like the Ornish Diet, were the trend.


Endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, the Ornish Diet is an example that some low-fat diets work with the right approach. While the diet isn’t at the top of the list for the best diets for 2019, the Ornish Diet ranks number nine—tied with the Nordic diet—in the top 10 overall best diets in U.S. News & World Report’s best diet rankings.

In an age where low-fat diets are frowned upon, let’s take a look at what makes the Ornish Diet so special.

What is the Ornish Diet?

Dean Ornish, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and founder of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, created the Ornish Diet in the early 1990s.

Based on his 1995 book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, the Ornish Diet emphasizes a vegetarian eating plan that includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and limited carbohydrates, animal proteins and fat. The diet is best known for its claims of preventing and reversing heart disease. In fact, it’s tied for the top spot with the Mediterranean diet as the best heart-healthy diet of 2019.

Unlike other diets and weight loss plans out there, the Ornish Diet also focuses on the mental side of weight loss by incorporating stress management techniques. Stress reduction is a core element of Dr. Ornish’s program, and he recommends deep breathing, yoga, and meditation.

Dr. Ornish also advises doing a variety of exercises, including resistance training, stretching, and aerobic workouts. Deepening relationships with family and friends and building support from community are also key, as they can positively affect your health.

Does the Ornish Diet work?

Following the Ornish Diet can lead to some positive outcomes, such as increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fibre and reduced intake of refined carbohydrates, sodium, and alcohol. The diet is great for people living with chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, who are looking to improve and potentially reverse their condition. And because it draws additional focus to exercise, stress reduction, and social support, the Ornish Diet can be good for people who are seeking to improve their overall health.

Dr. Ornish has conducted numerous studies about the effectiveness of the Ornish Diet for the prevention and treatment of various diseases, including heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes, as well as weight loss, and depression.

One of the most groundbreaking studies, the Lifestyle Heart Trial, was the first randomised clinical trial aimed at reversing heart disease without drugs or surgery. The study, which followed 48 patients with severe coronary heart disease over a six-year period, concluded that those who adhered to a healthy lifestyle—similar to the recommendations outlined in the Ornish Diet—had greater reductions in cardiovascular disease after five years. On the other hand, those who didn’t follow the lifestyle change continued to experience a progression of heart disease.

According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Urology, the Ornish Diet can also help prevent and even reverse early-stage prostate cancer. Similarly, a 2005 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that patients who followed the Ornish Diet had reduced their diabetes medication and had significant improvements in their blood glucose.

When it comes to weight loss, one study from the American Journal of Cardiology suggests that following the Ornish Diet can lead to significant weight loss because of the healthy lifestyle changes that come with the diet. And while some studies have shown that low-carb, high-fat diets are much more effective for dropping unwanted pounds short-term, a more recent 2018 study from JAMA demonstrated that there isn’t a major difference in weight loss between low-carb and low-fat diets, like the Ornish Diet. What’s more, a 2018 study from Lancet revealed that following a low-carb diet, like keto and Atkins, can shorten your lifespan.

What to eat on the Ornish Diet

The Ornish Diet isn’t about consuming fewer calories but making smarter food choices. The Ornish diet offers two separate plans: a lenient prevention diet and a more rigid reversal diet.

The prevention diet allows more leeway for people, depending on their personal goals, and can include moderate amounts of fish, skinless chicken, avocados, nuts, and seeds. On the other hand, guidelines for the reversal diet include consuming no more than 10 per cent of calories from fat and no more than 10 milligrams of cholesterol per day. It also calls for eliminating meat, fish, poultry, and caffeine (except green tea), limiting sugar, sodium, and alcohol, and only eating one serving of soy daily.

Both eating plans recommend avoiding saturated fat from animal proteins and full-fat dairy. Dr. Ornish recommends getting complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean protein from nonfat dairy products, soy, and egg whites.

The downsides of the Ornish Diet

While the Ornish Diet isn’t a calorie-restricted diet, fat and animal protein intake is severely restricted, which can lead to decreased satiety from meals as well as nutritional deficiencies. For people on the reversal diet, which is essentially vegan, the diet may be can be hard to maintain long-term. The diet can also be very low in calories and certain nutrients, depending on what people choose to eat.

How to get started on the Ornish Diet

Since both spectrums of the diet involve limiting animal proteins, start by swapping chicken and beef for plant-based proteins, such as tofu, beans, lentils, or tempeh. Similar to the Flexitarian Diet, the Ornish Diet encourages you to increase your fruit, vegetable, and whole grains intake at meal and snack times.

If you’re following the prevention diet plan, which allows for some healthy fats, be sure to exercise portion control with nuts, avocados, and olive oil to ensure you’re not taking in too many calories. And if you’re following the reversal diet plan, work with a registered dietitian who’s familiar with the Ornish Diet to ensure you’re consuming enough calories and an adequate amount of nutrients every day.

As always, it’s always best to check in with your doctor or a registered dietitian prior to starting a new diet. They can recommend the best weight loss plan that fits your dietary needs and lifestyle. It’s also worth noting that Medicare cover the Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease as part of its coverage of intensive cardiac rehabilitation programs. Some private insurers also cover the Ornish Diet for patients with type 2 diabetes, so be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re interested. 

Want to learn more? Visit the Ornish Diet web site for a full description of the plans and additional resources.

This article originally appeared on Prevention US.

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