Ornish diet involves 'Life Choice'

July 14, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Despite evidence presented last year by the National Institutes of Health that as much as 97 percent of the people who diet to lose weight are destined to fail, the idea of looking slimmer and feeling leaner has powerful appeal to those whose waistbands' grasp has exceeded their reach.

Somewhere out there, folks reason, there is a diet that works, and works for a lifetime.

"Somewhere" may very well be between the covers of Dean Ornish's latest book, "Eat More, Weigh Less" (HarperCollins, $22.) But people who aren't willing to make a radical change in the way they eat may find "somewhere" unreachable.

Dr. Ornish's diet, based on his 17 years of research into the

effects of diet and lifestyle on heart disease, achieves its extremely low level of calories by reducing fat (10 percent or less) by banning all meat (including fish and chicken), all high-fat or so-called "low-fat" dairy products, sugar and all forms of simple sugar derivatives (including molasses and honey) and alcohol.

Instead, his plan, which he calls the Life Choice program, encourages people to eat fruits and vegetables, legumes and grain, with moderate amounts of non-fat dairy products and other non-fat or extremely low-fat commercial products.

"Most diets are inefficient because they're based on depriving people of food," Dr. Ornish said in a recent telephone interview. When people fail to lose weight and keep it off with such schemes, he said, "they think there's something wrong with them, not realizing there's something wrong with the concept."

The Life Choice program alters what people eat, but allows "abundant" quantities of food.

However, the program, originally developed to help people overcome crippling heart disease without surgery, doesn't stop with diet. It also employs moderate exercise, such as brisk walks, support groups and meditation, to reduce stress.

"You need to motivate people at a deeper level," Dr. Ornish said. People who smoke or who overeat are often told to stop to avoid health consequences in the future. "But that's looking at it over the long term," Dr. Ornish said, a concept that is of no use to people whose pains and fears are at least in part psychological.

"Sometimes just getting through the day is more important," he said.

The program is not, he emphasized, for everyone. "I don't try to persuade people to do anything," he said. "I just offer them choices."

Dr. Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., is "one of the first people to take this holistic approach to heart disease," said Mark A. Kantor, a food and nutrition specialist who's an associate professor at the University of Maryland College Park.

"First of all, I think he is a very reputable scientist -- which is important," Dr. Kantor said, noting that not all "experts" in the field are so well-qualified.

"From a nutritional point of view," Dr. Kantor said, Dr. Ornish's diet is "a very healthful diet. . . . The real problem is getting people to open their minds" and adopt a whole new approach to eating. "Dean Ornish is taking a very drastic approach -- it's very sound, but I suspect it's difficult for people to do on their own."

Dr. Ornish admits that his approach is radical, but he believes that people can make lifestyle choices that affect their health.

"It's especially easy for people who have heart disease" to adopt, he said, because the results show up in as little as a couple of days, in a decrease in the frequency and severity of angina, or pain from blocked arteries.

And, paradoxically, he said, it seems easier for people to make big changes than moderate ones -- especially if the smaller changes bring lesser results.

"People aren't afraid to make big changes if they can see the benefits," he said.

Dr. Ornish said he realized that in order for his diet to be appealing, it would have to be delicious. So he called on some of the country's best-known chefs to produce recipes that could hold up, under nutritional analysis, to having less than 10 percent of calories from fat.

Among chefs contributing to the 250 recipes in the book were Paul Bertolli of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.; Daniel Boulud of Le Cirque in New York; Joyce Goldstein of Square One in San Francisco; and Tracy Pikhart Ritter of the Golden Door Health Spa in Escondido, Calif.

Ms. Goldstein, who had worked with Dr. Ornish before, wrote an introduction to the recipe section of the book on "Cooking the nonfat way." "This is not the end of fine dining," she concludes, "but the start of dining and thinking about food in a new way."

"I think the diet is extraordinary in that it really produces results," Ms. Goldstein said. "I have met patients of his whose lives have been changed."

For people whose health has been threatened, she said, the program may offer the only alternative to early death. She concedes that, for people raised on burgers, french fries, pizza and milkshakes, the regimen may be "too extreme."

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