The Ornish diet made me fat

I got that kind of question today that tempts me to roll my eyes and say, "Not again!"

"If I want to reverse my heart scan score, should I do the Ornish diet?" You know, the one by Dr. Dean Ornish: Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversal of Heart Disease.

I personally followed the Ornish program way back in the early 1990s. I reduced fat intake of all sorts to <10% of calories; eliminated all fish and meats, vegetable oils, and nuts; ate vegetables and fruits; and upped my reliance on whole grains. I used many of his recipes. I exercised by running 5 miles per day. (Far more than I do now!) I avoided sweets like candies and fruit juices.

What happened?

I gained 31 lbs, going from 155 to 186 lbs (I'm 5 ft 8 inches tall), my abdomen developed that loose, fleshy look, hanging over my beltline. My HDL plummeted to 28 mg/dl, triglycerides skyrocketed to 336 mg/dl, and I developed a severe small LDL pattern. I experienced a mental fogginess every afternoon. I felt tired and crabby much of the time. I sometimes struggled to suppress an irrational anger and frustration over the silliest things. I required huge amounts of coffee just to function day to day.

Hundreds of my patients suffered similar phenomena.

Few of us wear bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, or say "groovy". Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in is an "oldie", it's no longer cool to hold your index and middle fingers up in the "V" sign of peace. Even Ladybird Johnson has passed.

So should go the misadventures of the ultra low-fat diet, as articulated by Dr. Ornish. His day came and went. We learned from our mistakes. Now let's do something better.

Keep your eyes open for the New Track Your Plaque Diet.

Comments (16) -

  • JT

    7/13/2007 11:50:00 AM |

    Ooooowwwww, I like this!  I'm looking forward to the TYP diet book - not only for myself as a diet plan to follow for heart health, but also for weight loss.  will it be possible to buy signed copies?  I'm thinking ahead to the holidays and gift giving season.

  • Dr. Davis

    7/13/2007 12:06:00 PM |

    Hi, JT--

    Actually, not a book, just a lengthy Special Report on the website. However, as our program gains a brand recognition, there may be such a book opportunity.

    In all honesty, most of the concepts that are articulated in our program have already been well said by Art Agatston in South Beach and Loren Cordain in Paleo Diet. The Track Your Plaque approach adds the sophistication of lipoproteins, but the basic food practices are very similar.

  • JT

    7/13/2007 2:06:00 PM |

    Hi Dr. Davis,

    Thanks for the honest reply.  I'm going to take a look at the South Beach and Paleo diet books mentioned.  I've heard of them, but always being relatively thin never took the time to learn what they have to teach.  

    Talking with my father yesterday, I told him that I wrote about his "unexpected" weight loss while following the TYP diet/ supplement program.  He had a chuckle over it and told me he told my mother my thoughts that the weight loss came from following the TYP program.   Because of that she is now raiding his fish oil & vitamin D capsules    , adding that I better order him more.

  • Regina Wilshire

    7/13/2007 5:51:00 PM |


    Thank you for sharing your personal experience, and reasons for now discouraging the ultra-low-fat dietary principles articulated by Dr. Ornish.  It's critically important that we abandon the myths and start to seriously talk about the facts and data so we can move forward and help people learn how to optimize their health.

  • BaltimoreOriole

    7/31/2007 9:28:00 PM |

    Thank you for that.  My 36yo daughter has followed an utlra-low fat lifestyle(cites Ornish frequently). Eating entirely fruits, veggies, whole-grain high-fiber cereals and lots of water (for 10 years!), she has been proud of her "healthy eating".  Her “extra meal” of vitamins and supplements made up for anything she felt she was missing (she believed). However,  after years of excellent total cholesterol readings, VAP testing revealed her LDLs and triglycerides have been going up and HDL going down.  (HDL: 37; VLDL3:16; Tg:148!).  To top it off, her period stopped, skin got worse, and bone density test came back bad.  Thank you for raising the red flag on ultra low-fat diets from the perspective of heart health!

  • Bruce K

    6/10/2008 7:56:00 PM |

    Dr. Davis, I think we need to make the distinction between Ornish and other low-fat diets, like Fuhrman, which might be vastly better. Joel Fuhrman claims his diet will lower triglycerides and improve all the other health markers rapidly.

    Unlike Dean Ornish, Furhman limits grains. They are at the top of his food pyramid (0-20% of calories), and he stresses the importance of unbroken grains, not flours. Brown rice and oatmeal, for example. He would not allow any type of bread, except sprouted flour-less breads. Here's a photo of his food pyramid. Veggies are the base. Half-raw and half-cooked. Next level has fruits, beans, raw nuts, and raw seeds. At the top are unbroken whole grains.

    Here is an article pointing out how highly perishable whole grain flour is. It quickly become rancid and it loses vitamins. Animals fed a whole grain flour stored for 15 days were infertile after 3-5 generations. At the same time, the animals getting fresh-ground flour (or bread) were still fertile. Weston Price pointed this out in his book, too, but many people ignore

    Weston Price reversed dental decay in children by feeding fresh-ground whole wheat rolls (along with other things). Price: "The wheat for the rolls was ground fresh every day in a motor driven coffee mill." It is clear that most people nowadays are not eating flour of this quality or whole unbroken grains like Fuhrman suggests. Maybe this is a factor in why infertility and various chronic diseases are now so prevalent.

  • Bruce K

    6/10/2008 10:20:00 PM |

    Moreover, the Ornish Diet made Dean Ornish fat. Ornish's Diet is a poor diet, period. Dr. Fuhrman's is much better. Not that I endorse low-fat diets, but I think some people will do well on Fuhrman's plan. Few, if any, will do well on Ornish's Diet. Pretzels, bagels, and pasta are all highly processed foods, compared to brown rice, oatmeal, etc. Fuhrman's diet discourages grains, esp flour,  and Dean Ornish allows them.

    Here is a debate between Ornisn and Gary Taubes. Ornish looks pudgy and pasty. Taubes is lean and muscular. Who would you rather look like? Dr. Ornish's diet made him fat.

  • Anonymous

    8/10/2008 10:03:00 PM |

    the Ornish diet is definitely not for me; I need my fat - BUT as far as being critical of Ornish's looks (you said pudgy,etc) Dr. Oz is a vegetarian and low fat; so looks cant really be counted here.

  • Anonymous

    10/2/2008 2:39:00 AM |

    I'm thriving by eating using WAPF principles (3 years), and I cut all gluten-containing grains out of my diet (1 year).  I'm not overweight, and I have better color in my skin than I've ever had.  I feel wonderful.

  • Anonymous

    9/15/2009 9:41:43 PM |

    If you read his books, you'd learn that Dr. Ornish used to be much more overweight than he is now. And severely depressed. His diet and other lifestyle changes cured both.

  • Anonymous

    9/19/2009 4:01:01 PM |

    My husband and I were on the McDougall diet for 3 or 4 years.  Our most common meal was rice and beans with hot sauce for flavor and lots of bread.  McDougall(his diet is similar to Ornish's)said it
    was impossible to have a heart attack on his diet because there was NO fat!  Guess what!  My husband had a massive heart attack
    and lost half his heart.  I don't know whether to be angry with McDougall or with myself for my
    extreme gullibility.  Hy husband has passed away now and I'm on the
    Weston Price diet (without the grains) and am thriving.

  • Anonymous

    9/28/2009 5:18:36 PM |

    sorry about your husband. if memory serves me correct dr mcdougall does not recommend bread or flour unless you are interested in gaining weight.

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 8:26:40 PM |

    So should go the misadventures of the ultra low-fat diet, as articulated by Dr. Ornish. His day came and went. We learned from our mistakes. Now let's do something better.

  • Anonymous

    1/7/2011 11:00:43 PM |

    This post is (most likely) a great example of lying on the internet for personal gain or ideological reasons. Don't believe everything you read people!

  • Anonymous

    1/7/2011 11:20:57 PM |

    The original poster is probably leaving off some key information.

    He or she probably did not actually follow the recommendations.

    It is difficult for many people to stick to the Ornish diet. Those who do stick to it usually get overwhelmingly good results.

    If you stick to it, it is really hard to get too many calories, since fat contains more than double that of protein and carbs per gram.

    If the poster actually did what they said they did, especially with the running, they would have withered away to nothing. Unless, of course, he or she ate wheelbarrows full of food.

    If you eat less calories than you are burning, you will lose weight. On an Ornish plan, it is very hard to eat more calories than you burn.

  • Tom

    2/28/2011 10:10:23 PM |

    Whoever wrote this article simply wasn't following the Ornish plan. They said that they required large quantities of coffee to function. Coffee isn't on the Ornish menu because it's a stimulant. Therefore, if you were consuming coffee, you weren't on the ornish diet.