Nutrition and Soul
Highlights from an enlightening evening with Dr. Dean Ornish
by Stephen Leckie
Over 1,000 people turned up for a special $100 a plate fund-raising dinner in honour of Dr. Dean Ornish held at The Westin Harbour Castle Hotel on May 27. The audience which included many health professionals was as far from new age as you can get, yet they were there to hear the man credited with proving scientifically that heart disease can be reversed by using a low fat vegetarian diet, stress reduction techniques, moderate exercise and no smoking. Ornish's books include Reversing Heart Disease and Eat More, Weigh Less.
The ultra low fat approach
A low fat vegetarian diet is probably the most important aspect of Ornish's program and is certainly the most scientifically proven. According to Ornish, vegetarian foods have several health promoting advantages - they contain no cholesterol, are low in saturated fats, high in fibre (which animal foods lack), and are high in antioxidants such as beta carotene which naturally protects against cancer and cholesterol build up. Meats are high in oxidants (such as iron) which he said turns cholesterol into a more dangerous form.
Most people in Canada eat a diet containing 40% fat. The major health associations and government bodies recommend eating only 30% fat. Ornish found that 10% fat was the optimum amount for reversing heart disease. Control patients in his studies that were put on 30% fat diets got "worse, albeit more slowly, over time".
He made it clear that it is important to give people the freedom to reach their own conclusions. "People want to be in control". Ornish never tells patients that they must adopt a vegetarian diet. Instead he gives them the facts and tells them to only change if they want to.
Why diets don't work
According to Ornish, virtually all weight loss programs are based on deprivation of total calories, and studies have shown that 97% of followers gain all the weight they lost within five years. The typical response to these studies has been one of nihilism - "why bother dieting, be fat and happy." Yet no one is denying that obesity is a major health problem in North America, one that can lead to severe illness and premature death. Ornish brought out his second book, Eat More, Weigh Less to demonstrate that losing weight can be both permanent and enjoyable. The book is half information and half gourmet recipes.
Ornish encourages his patients to eat as much low-fat vegetarian food as they want and has found that most lose all their excess weight. One word of caution, simple carbohydrates such as sugar, alcohol and to a certain extent white flour can lead to swings in insulin production and increased weight gain. Ornish stressed the importance of eating complex carbohydrates (eg. whole grains).
Although more difficult to pin down scientifically, Ornish put a lot of emphasis on stress reduction through finding inner peace and social connections. He reminded us of social networks that were commonplace only a few decades ago - such as being part of an extended family, being at the same job for over 10 years, knowing your neighbours, being part of a church, temple or club. These radical shifts in society have lead to severe loneliness and alienation. People don't care about living longer, they just want to get through the day and they use alcohol, cigarettes, fatty food and overwork to fill the void. He underlined the seriousness of this with a study that found that people who are socially isolated (i.e.. who have no close friends) are four times more likely of die from all causes.
Ornish spoke of the importance of intimacy for healing, "everyone can benefit from being touched and held." Meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi were recommended as ways to find inner peace and concentration. Ornish also mentioned the joy of making simple ordinary tasks an exercise of awareness and conscious movement - a dance of life.
"Everyone can benefit from being touched and held."
The most common criticism of Ornish's approach has been the radical change
in lifestyle required. He responds to this by pointing out that most people
aren't afraid to make major lifestyle changes. "Look at the consequences
of the decision to have children", he said. In the case of the reversing
heart disease program, major change leads to a major improvement in health,
energy and spirit. Ornish has found that once properly informed, people will
overcome lifelong bad habits and make major changes gladly. "At the very
least", he said, "heart disease patients should be told of powerful
possibilities of this approach instead of just assuming that they will be unable
and unwilling to eat less than 30% fat diets."
Ornish says the big benefit for following the program is the 'here and now' feeling of having more energy and clarity. He became vegetarian himself at age 19 for this very reason. According to Ornish, the idea of living longer doesn't actually appeal to most people because no one spends much time thinking about their own death, or their current day-to-day existence is so hard that the thought of living several more years is far from being a motivating factor for change.
Overall, the evening was pure magic. I don't know if it was Dean Ornish himself, a doctor with impeccable medical and scientific backing, recommending a vegetarian diet and spiritual healing, or if it was partaking in what was likely the largest gourmet vegetarian meal ever served in Toronto, or seeing conservative medical professionals swinging their arms in the air and shaking their hips to the aerobic demonstration during the break, but I had the distinct feeling that a revolution was brewing - a paradigm shift of epic proportions.