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The Joy of Health - A Conversation with Dr. Dean Ornish on lifestyle changes that foster well-being

Jan 03, 2011 06:01PM

by April Thompson

For more than 30 years, renowned medical doctor Dean Ornish has led pioneering clinical research proving that making simple changes in the way we eat and live can radically transform our health. He directed the first randomized, controlled trials demonstrating that lifestyle changes may halt or reverse the progression of even severe coronary heart disease, as well as early-stage prostate cancer. In collaboration with Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., Ornish also showed that healthy lifestyle changes can increase telomerase, and thus lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control how long we live.

Ornish is the founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the author of six bestselling books, including Eat More, Weigh Less and most recently, The Spectrum.

What sparked your interest in preventive medicine?

I got interested in doing this work when I was learning how to do bypass surgery as a medical student. We’d cut people open, bypass their blocked arteries and tell them they were cured; then they‘d go home and continue to do the same things that caused the problem in the first place—smoke, overeat, drink too much, work too hard and so on.

More often than not, their bypasses would get clogged up again, and we’d cut them open again and bypass the bypass, sometimes multiple times. That became a metaphor for an incomplete approach for me. Sometimes you need to use drugs and surgery in a crisis, but ultimately, you must address the underlying cause.

What is the concept behind The Spectrum and how does it differ from other lifestyle programs?

The problem with most lifestyle-oriented health programs is that they are restrictive, all-or-nothing, fear-based approaches. If you go on a diet or exercise program, sooner or later you’re going to go off of it. Then people feel like they’ve failed; it makes it hard to maintain.

Sustainable changes, on the other hand, are based on joy, pleasure and freedom. In our research, we found that the more you change your lifestyle, the more you improve and the better you feel. The better you feel, the more likely you are to continue these changes.

The Spectrum is not a diet; it’s an overall way of living. If you overindulge one day, you then eat healthier the next. Let’s say, for example, that you want to lower your cholesterol or get your diabetes under control. You begin by making moderate changes that you choose. There’s no pushback because you set the pace. We’ll help track your progress, and if the changes are enough to accomplish your goals, great; and if not, then you can do more.

Who seems to benefit most from this approach, and to what degree?

One of our most interesting research findings was that the primary determinant of improvement wasn’t how old or sick people were, it was how much they’d changed their diet and lifestyle. The body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself if we simply stop doing what’s causing the problem. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of patients slow or reverse the progress of life-threatening diseases when they make good changes.

Such lifestyle changes can work not only as well as drugs and surgery, but oftentimes better, and at a fraction of the cost. Plus, the side effects are all good ones.

You stress the importance of individual lifestyle changes, but what about changing our sick health care system?

We do need to look at the politics of health care and hold our leaders responsible for some of decisions that have created the mess we’re in.

For example, after 16 years of lobbying, working with Medicare and members of Congress, we learned a few months ago that Medicare is finally covering our program for reversing heart disease. It’s game changing. If Medicare covers it, all the other insurance companies will follow their lead, and we can make these sorts of programs available to people who most need them, rather than just those who can afford it

If we change reimbursement, we change not only medical practice, but also medical education. Otherwise, I could do a thousand studies with a million patients and it would always remain on the fringes of medical practice.

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April Thompson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. See

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