Ornish Diet Review: Healthy Way to Eat or Just Hype?

By Lydia Noyes
HighYa Staff
Published on: Jun 7, 2019

The Ornish Diet is a primarily plant-based eating strategy designed to help you lose weight, cut down your risk of heart disease, and prevent or reverse the symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

The diet was founded the Dr. Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California. Ornish founded the nonprofit Preventative Medicine Research Institute in the early 1990s, and he is well known for researching integrative lifestyle changes that work to prevent and reverse the symptoms of heart disease.

By following what essentially breaks down into a vegetarian diet, this approach promises that you can reduce your risk of developing chronic lifestyle diseases, turn on health-promoting genes, and lengthen the end of your chromosomes (known as telomeres) to slow down aging at the cellular level. Through these methods, the diet promises to help you foster a better quality of life.

How Does the Ornish Diet Work?

To summarize its primary goals, the Ornish diet prioritizes foods that are low in fat, refined carbs and animal protein, and emphasizes the importance of regular exercise, stress management techniques, and healthy interpersonal relationships.

In the words of Dr. Kac Young, “Dr. Ornish’s program details four key elements: what you eat; how much you move (exercise); how you manage stress; and what kind of love and support you have in your life. These four principles can change a life, increase longevity and even reverse heart disease.”

There isn’t one single “Ornish Diet.” Instead, it encompasses a philosophy of eating and living based on key principles for disease prevention. One popular version, known as the Spectrum diet, separates foods into five groups from most to least healthy, and it’s up to you to build your meals with them.

The flexibility within this eating approach is intentional, as the Ornish diet is designed for long term practice, rather than short term results.

By giving you the freedom to choose foods that make the most sense for you and not making anything entirely off limits, the idea is that you will make positive food decisions without feeling deprived.

In this way, Ornish diet followers can tailor the plan to their goals, whether they are losing weight, preventing cancer, or lowering blood pressure. However, the main principles of the diet remain the same.

Below are the foods that are permitted, not recommended, and allowed in only small amounts.

Permitted Without Restriction:

  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nondairy milk alternatives like soy milk
  • Low-dose multivitamins

Allowed in Limited Quantities:

  • Low-fat, non-fat dairy (one cup per day)
  • Egg whites (a few per week)
  • Alcohol (two ounces per day)
  • Salt

Caffeine is allowed in limited quantities for those who already drink it, but those who don’t shouldn’t start. The diet recommends up to one cup of coffee or two cups of black tea per day.

Not Recommended:

No foods are entirely off limit with the Ornish diet unless you are following the Spectrum plan. Saying that, it’s recommended you limit the following foods from your diet as much as possible.

  • All meat (including fish and poultry)
  • Cooking oils
  • Refined sugars
  • Processed foods
  • Full fat dairy
  • Saturated fats, especially from animal products

Regarding exercise, the Ornish program puts the focus on aerobic activities, resistance training, and flexibility, as well as stress-reducing activities like meditation and breathing exercises. The plan also recommends that you spend time with loved ones as much as possible for the relational benefits for your health.

What’s the Expert Perspective on the Ornish Diet?

Does the Ornish diet’s focus on plant-based foods make it a smart option for you? We talked with a variety of health experts to learn more.

Dr. Kac Young is a speaker and educator on heart health and the author of “HeartEasy, The Food Lovers’ Guide to Heart Healthy Foods.” She made it clear to us that she is in favor of the eating strategy.

In her view, the Ornish diet distinguishes itself with four key elements: what (and how much) you eat, how much you exercise, how you manage stress, and the value of your interpersonal relationships.

“These four principles can change a life, increase longevity and even reverse heart disease. Too many people are walking around with excess weight, eating unhealthy food laden with saturated fats and not getting enough exercise” Young told us. “In short, they are killing themselves once a day at a time by neglecting the four elements Dr. Orinish promotes.”

However, there’s a reason to believe that some people might find even the flexibility of the Ornish diet too difficult to follow for the long term. Certified personal fitness trainer Caleb Backe shared this view.

“The problem with the Ornish diet is that it may be difficult for some people to commit to long-term. It’s difficult to avoid all chicken, meats, egg yolks, and fish. Since the diet is extremely low in fats, people may feel less satisfied with their meals,” Backe said.

Is the Ornish Diet Healthy?

According to WebMD, following the Ornish Diet can be a healthy choice that helps you lose weight, especially for those who are at risk of heart disease.

Research from the American Journal of Cardiology seems to suggest that following the diet and lifestyle changes Dr. Ornish advocates can lead to significant weight loss that can be sustained for the long-term.

The Ornish diet website also shares that people tend to improve their heart health while following it. That’s partly because the plan lowers your fat, cholesterol and caloric intake which puts less pressure on the heart and lets it pump more efficiently.

According to the company website, Ornish diet followers can lower their BMI by 10percent, lower their LDL cholesterol by 40 points, and reduce their blood pressure by 35 points.

There’s also evidence in a medical trial published by Harvard that following the Ornish diet reduces your risk of developing prostate cancer and might even reverse it.

Saying that, the Ornish diet will only work as described if you follow it entirely. Because the diet is primarily plant-based, many people may struggle to commit to it.

Likewise, U.S. News reports that because the eating strategy is so low fat—a macronutrient associated with being satiated—that it’s possible to feel hungry on the plan and potentially give into cravings.

Are There Similar Plans to the Ornish Diet?

While the Ornish diet shares many similarities to other plant-based diets, there are a few key differences. We’ll highlight those by comparing the eating plan to a traditional vegan diet and the Nutritarian diet.

According to the Vegan Society, those who follow a vegan diet eliminate all animal products from their meals. Some also extend this rule into their lifestyle and forgo things like leather or goat’s milk soap. However, vegan diets don’t emphasize the foods that you can eat, which means it’s possible to be 100-percent vegan and eat nothing but potato chips and Oreos.

The Nutritarian diet is another eating strategy that restricts the consumption of all animal products. Where it differs from veganism is the emphasis on maximizing your nutrient intake per meal.

This eating plan has its own food pyramid that puts the focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and restricts your intake of all processed foods, including plant-based cooking oils.

While the Ornish diet restricts the amount of meat you can eat, it’s the only plan of the three that allows you to consume animal products like egg whites and low-fat dairy. Likewise, the Ornish diet puts the most emphasis on non-dietary positive lifestyle changes, like exercise, managing stress, and interpersonal relationships.

For these reasons, we think that the Ornish diet offers a more holistic and obtainable change than the other two diets mentioned. This is because the plan puts fewer foods off limits and looks at more facets for your overall health.

Our View: Should You Try the Ornish Diet?

Taking all this information into account, what do we think of the Ornish diet? It’s our perspective that the Ornish diet, when followed correctly, is a healthy way to eat.

This primarily plant-based eating strategy will eliminate added sugars and processed food from your diet, which the studies we referenced earlier show is a healthy way to eat.

However, the Ornish diet is known for being restrictive, meaning that many people may struggle to follow it as written. U.S. News even labels it as “extremely difficult to follow.”

If you aren’t careful about eating enough plant-based sources of protein, it’s possible to feel hungry on this plan and potentially give into cravings for unapproved foods. In the same way, you might follow the Ornish diet exactly but still come up short from a nutritional standpoint if you aren’t careful about balancing out what you eat.

For these reasons, we believe that the Ornish diet is a smart way to eat for a certain type of personality type. If the following statements ring true to you, we suggest giving this eating strategy a try.

  • You want to follow a whole food, plant-based diet
  • You don’t typically give into cravings for sweets or processed foods
  • You are willing to eat a large variety of produce daily
  • You don’t mind that finding food that fits the diet at restaurants or friend’s house might be tricky
  • You are detail-oriented and don’t mind tracking your nutrient intake

We also think the diet could be a good fit if you want to follow an eating strategy that takes more than nutrition into account, like focusing on stress management and healthy relationships, too.

» Recommended Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Getting in Shape

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