Will the Ornish Diet Help You?

By Laura High and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
June 13, 2023
Will the Ornish Diet Help You?

This very low-fat diet has a reputation for reversing heart disease, and it may improve other health conditions. Here’s what you should know.

Dieting is hard, but what if you had enough support? Do you feel too stressed to add another goal to your list? What about exercise? Many people need buddies to stick with an exercise routine.

Good nutrition, stress management, moderate exercise, and social support come as package in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. The program is designed to reverse heart disease and may reverse type 2 diabetes, according to some research. It may also slow, stop, or reverse early-stage prostate cancer.


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Decades ago, while still in medical school, Dean Ornish, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, began researching how to address the underlying causes of heart disease.

In 1984 Ornish founded the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. Its work has persuaded Medicare and some private insurers to cover his intensive cardiac rehabilitation program for heart patients and, in some cases, people at risk of heart disease. You can look for a provider in your area here.   

The Ornish Diet

This is a plant-based low-fat approach. You’ll eat lots of vegetables, fruit, legumes like beans and soy, nuts, avocados, and canola oil.

Small, frequent meals spread throughout the day help prevent hunger and energy dips. To control weight and blood sugar, you’ll limit your portions.

You can have two servings a day of bad carbs, such as white rice or food with added sugars (maple syrup, agave, honey, or white or brown sugar). You also can have two servings a day of non-fat dairy or egg whites.

You can’t have meat, poultry, fish, or any products made from those foods.

The Ornish approach also includes 18 four-hour sessions with a small group of people who all have the goal of reversing heart disease.

Is the Ornish Diet right for you?

One of the criticisms of the diet is that it may be hard to stick with over time. And, even with the strict regime, the diet doesn’t show better results than other approaches.

When an international team writing in the prestigious British Medical Journal compared the evidence backing seven structured diets for heart patients, however, it concluded that the Ornish approach might “have little or no benefit” in preventing heart attacks and deaths.

The diet might suit you if you find that the package, including support for dieting and exercise, is helpful. Support combined with nutritional counselling may be a critical component of a successful weight-loss program.

You don’t need to give up chicken and fish to pursue a heart-healthy diet, but emphasizing vegetables and whole grains is vital.

What works for many people? The Mediterranean diet, which is rather similar but includes fish and some chicken. The Ornish diet is entirely plant-based.

No one diet is right for everyone. Before starting a new diet, talk with your healthcare provider to find what steps could work best for you.


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June 13, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN