Highlights from Jonathan Otto's interview with Dr. Dean Ornish, for the Depression & Anxiety Series. Dr. Ornish discusses a whole food, plant based diet, and why it is so powerful as a therapy for so many different diseases.

Dr. Dean Ornish

Dr. Onish: You know, with all this talk about personalized medicine and if you’re talking about developing a targeted immunotherapy for a particular cell line of melanoma, metastatic melanoma. That’s awesome. But for most chronic diseases, heart disease, diabetes, prostate, breast, colon cancer, autoimmune diseases, probably Alzheimer’s, it’s not like there’s one set of dietary recommendations for one and a different for another. We found that these same lifestyle changes, the more diseases we studied, the more reasons we had to explain why these simple changes are so powerful and we found that all of these conditions can be done. So it’s a whole foods, plant based diet. It’s fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in their natural, unrefined forms. It’s also low both in fat and in sugar or refined carbs. I debated Dr. Atkins a number of times before he died, as it turns out, of heart disease, as it turns out, and he was the low carb guy. So I got kind of pegged as the low fat guy.

It’s so much more than that because there are literally hundreds of thousands of protective substances and fruits and vegetables and whole grains and legumes and soy that have anti-cancer, anti-heart disease and even anti-aging properties and that’s where you find them is in a plant based diet. There’s also more information that the animal protein itself may be inflammatory and inflammation is a common, underlying mechanism across so many of these different diseased states and so if you have an autoimmune disease, autoimmune disease simply means that your body is attacking itself because it’s got a confusion of what is self and what is not self and so the animal protein increases the likelihood that your immune system is gonna be in overdrive, which causes you to attack different parts of your body.

I also find from a, this is just my own crazy thinking, that mystics use the same terminology as immunologists, that what is self and what is not self? Now a mystic would say, “Everything is ultimately self in a different form,” and I’ve always wondered if you could train people to have these kinds of spiritual experiences, through meditation and other means where they say, “Yes, on one level, we’re separate. You’re you and I’m me.” On another level, we’re part of something larger that connects us all, that we’re all self in that sense, whether that actually might modify an autoimmune disease and we’ve done that with a few patients and it’s not the kind of randomized control data that we have for other things. But it’s really provocative.

if you’re trying to reverse the disease, it takes a lot. That’s like the pound of cure versus the ounce of prevention. Now the reason that we were the first to show you you could reverse all these different conditions in a scientific way is that most people didn’t go far enough and so it takes a lot to reverse disease.

It takes essentially to be on a whole foods, plant based diet strictly, also to do an hour a day of meditation and yoga and other stress management techniques, to walk for a half an hour a day and to have love and support in your life by doing the support groups and also then taking those lessons into your everyday life. Now on the other hand, if you don’t have a life threatening condition, it’s not all or nothing and paradoxically I will add also that sometimes it’s actually easier to make big changes than small changes, even though that’s counterintuitive because when you make big changes, you feel so much better so quickly, it refrains the reason for making those changes from fear of dying to joy of living because your brain gets more blood. You think more clearly. You have more energy. You need less sleep. You can actually grow someone a new brain neurons through a process called neurogenesis. Your brain can actually get bigger in just a few weeks. Your skin gets more blood. You don’t age as quickly. I mean, I’m 96, I look pretty ... No, just kidding. Your heart gets more blood.

Your sexual organs get more blood in the same way that Viagra works and so everything gets better in that way. But if you’re otherwise just healthy and you want to lose a few pounds or see if you can get off some blood pressure medicines or those kinds of things, one of the interesting findings that surprised me in all of our studies was that the more you change, the more you improve at any age, which is really empowering. Now I predicted incorrectly, as it turns out the younger patients who had less severe disease would do better than those who were older or had more advanced disease. But I was completely wrong. It wasn’t how old they were. It wasn’t how sick they were. The only thing that mattered was the more you changed your diet and lifestyle, the better you get at any age, which is really a great message to be able to give people.

So I wrote a book called The Spectrum, that was based on this finding that said, “Look, if you go on a diet, chances are, you’re gonna go off a diet,” because diets are all about what you can’t have and what you must do and even more than being healthy, most people want to feel free and in control and as soon as I tell somebody, “Eat this and don’t eat that,” they immediately want to do just the opposite. It’s just human nature. When I lecture sometimes, I say it goes back to the first dietary intervention, when God said, “Don’t eat the apple,” and that didn’t go so well and that was God talking so we’re not gonna do better than that. So to say look, if you go on a diet, you’re gonna go off it because people don’t like to feel controlled and so on and then you have all those shame and guilt and anger and humiliation, all those toxic emotions that really are bad for you. So to say look, food is just food. But some foods are healthier than others.

So I categorize foods in the book from group one, the most helpful, which are basically the whole foods, plant based diets, to group five, which are the least healthful, which are your usual suspects, cheeseburgers and donuts and things like that and groups two through four in the middle and I say what matters most is your overall way of eating and living. So if you indulge yourself one day, it doesn’t mean you cheated or your bad. The whole language of behavioral medicine has this kind of shame and guilt, toxic quality, like wagging your finger, which people hate. If you indulge yourself one day, it doesn’t mean you cheated or you failed. Just eat healthier the next. You don’t have time to meditate for an hour, do it for a minute. You don’t have time to exercise one day, do a little more the next day. You don’t have time to be with your friends and family one day, spend a little more time with them the next day. Then you can’t fail. It’s a much more compassionate approach because there’s no diet to get on. There’s no diet to get off.

The other thing that often brings meaning to people when they change their diet is to realize that it’s not just helping you, that’s what good for you is good for the planet. What’s personally sustainable is globally sustainable. More global warming is caused by eating livestock than all forms of transportation combined. It’s one of the reasons why I used to get into debates in a very friendly way with Al Gore and say, “It’s great to drive small cars and have fluorescent light bulbs. But you should be eating a plant based diet and years ago, he became a vegan to his great credit, not because of me, because he wanted to do the right thing and even though he was a cattle rancher, I think it sets a great example for everyone and so when people realize and it takes 10 to 14 times more resources to make a pound of meat based protein than plant based protein. So we have enough food in the world to feed the hungry worldwide. No one need go hungry if everyone were eating a plant based diet.

Dr. Nuzum:  There’s huge detrimental impact on the planet, you believe because of meat eating.

Dr. Onish: There is and also, I mean, I was on the board of the San Francisco Food Bank for many years and I learned that one out of five people in the Bay Area goes to bed hungry, one out of five kids and this is a very affluent area. It’s completely preventable. It’s not like we need to learn something new. We just need to put that into practice. So maybe you’re not ready, if you’re watching this, to be a vegan or vegetarian or whatever. Maybe you have one meal a day. I’m choosing to have a meatless Monday because it’s gonna help me. It’s gonna help the planet. It’s gonna help feed the hungry. That’s a good choice. Susie Cameron, James Cameron’s wife, the filmmaker who did all these amazing films like Avatar and Terminator and so on went on a plant based diet. They both did about eight years ago, initially for environmental reasons and later, they realized how much it was helping their health and so she has a new book coming out later this year called One Meal a Day, just based on the idea that, do what you can.

Start slowly and then as you begin to do it for others, it brings meaning, which makes it sustainable and that’s because these biological mechanisms are so dynamic. You’re going to feel so much better when you have that one meal a day that’s plant based and you’ll say, “Well, maybe I’ll have two meals,” and then it kind of comes out of your own experience and that ultimately is what makes it sustainable.