Debating Diets: what is the Ornish diet?


Are you thinking about starting a new diet? While the amount of information available can be overwhelming, it’s possible to find a diet that is safe, suitable and effective for your lifestyle.

Claire Edgemon, senior registered dietitian at Baylor Medicine’s Weight Loss and Metabolic Center, discusses what you need to know about the Ornish diet, one facet of the overall Ornish lifestyle plan.

Question: How does the Ornish diet work? What are recommended foods? Discouraged foods?

A: It has several factors: diet, exercise, stress reduction and social support. There are two forms of this diet. The most common one reduces the risk of heart disease and is very restrictive. It emphasizes low-fat, plant-based foods while limiting dietary fat to 10% of daily calories, cholesterol to 10 mg per day and sodium to 200-1500 mg per day. All fruits and vegetables, whole grains (oats, wild rice, quinoa, whole wheat), legumes (beans, peas, lentils), one serving of soy (milk, tempeh, tofu) and herbs and spices are allowed. It is recommended to avoid all animal products, caffeine (except for green tea), foods with trans fatty acids (mainly processed foods) and refined carbohydrates and oils.

The other form of the diet is more liberal. All fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy, herbs and spices are allowed, but it also allows egg whites, low-fat/fat-free dairy (yogurt, milk), nuts and nut butters, seeds and small amounts of refined carbs and caffeine. Meat, poultry, fish and egg yolks are greatly limited.

Q: Who should avoid this diet?

A: Some aspects of this diet could be very restrictive. People with a history of eating disorders might not want to follow it. Also, there is some potential for nutrient deficiencies, like vitamin B12 (only found naturally in animal products) and vitamin D (there are not many good food sources of vitamin D; fish and fortified milk are good sources but limited in the restrictive diet). In addition, people who receive weight loss surgery might not want to follow the Ornish diet since the need for protein increases, but stomach volume has been greatly reduced. In general, it takes more plant foods to reach protein intake recommendations.

Q: What kind of physiological changes or side effects should be expected?

A: This diet can help reduce issues associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. A diet high in plant foods has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing some cancers. In addition, a lower-calorie diet, like the Ornish diet, could also lead to weight loss.

Q: What else should people know before considering this diet?

A: It’s a diet for the whole family to enjoy together. In general, plant-based proteins are cheaper than animal proteins. The diet is environmentally friendly. It can easily be modified to be vegan or gluten-free. There is no program to join to follow this diet and followers don’t have to count calories, carbs or points. However, if someone is following the more restrictive heart-healthy plan, there may be more work involved in meal planning and prep.

By Anna Kiappes

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