You Can Do It! Ornish Lifestyle MedicineTM Program Offers Heart Attack Survivors a Way Back to Cardiac Health

Author: Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN

Sonya Angelone, MS, RDNA little more than a year ago, Cardiovascular Center of Marin began offering cardiac patients an opportunity to enroll in the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program as part of the recovery process after a heart attack or heart procedure. A pioneering approach to the cause and treatment of the number one cause of death in our country, the program was developed by Dr. Dean Ornish, a Marin County resident. More than three decades of research has shown that the progression of coronary artery disease and other chronic conditions can be treated and reversed through lifestyle changes.

The nine-week program guides participants through making lifestyle management changes in four key areas: exercise, stress management, nutrition, and group support. All four elements work together to help a patient recover from heart disease and in many cases, research has shown, to reverse the disease itself.

The nutrition element, however — what is usually referred to the Ornish Diet — is the source of most questions among potential enrollees in the program. Although the Ornish Diet offers a range of acceptable food choices for any individual seeking a healthier lifestyle, the strictest and most effective part of the diet as a factor in reversing heart disease is very low fat (10%), almost exclusively plant-based diet.

“I can’t live without meat and cheese,” is a typical question of people considering the program. I also hear “Eating won’t be fun anymore,” or “I’ll never be able to meet the strict requirements.”

I can understand their concern. We are very attached to our food. Eating is a social activity and it brings us much comfort and satisfaction. To change to a whole new way of cooking and eating is daunting.

Making the significant changes the cardiac reversal diet requires, however, is possible, especially when what motivates you as someone with heart disease is your continued survival.

As the nutritionist for the Ornish program, it has been my privilege to get these concerned, sometimes fearful, but very motivated people started on their journey back to good cardiovascular health. As people who have heart disease or who have survived a heart attack, they have a keen awareness of why they are seeking a change in their lifestyles. My job is to show them how.

In our nutrition sessions, we talk about the practicalities involved in being able to stick to the diet such as new ways to choose and prepare food; how to make menu planning easier; mealtime choices that don’t have to involve cooking; where to eat out, and much more. Even before the nine-week session comes to an end, people in the class say their new way of eating has become natural — a new normal.

Our participants say the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine experience is transformative. Exercise becomes more enjoyable, stress relieving techniques such as yoga and meditation no longer feel unnatural, the new way of eating brings rewards such as increased vitality and weight loss. Participants also gain an increased sense of health and wellbeing from the strong group support and increased social interactions the program provides. It is not uncommon for our participants, once they graduate from the program, to socialize together, and to lean on each other for support if the motivation for sticking to the diet or exercise is lagging.

Addressing the prevention, cause, and treatment for cardiac disease is key. More than 700,000 people in the U.S. experience a heart attack each year. An estimated 50% of those do not have high cholesterol; for 35% of heart attack victims, death, unfortunately, is the first symptom.

Approximately 795,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke each year The third leading cause of death in the U.S, stroke is fatal in about 10 to 20 percent of cases. Even if you survive, the damage can be major and can affect the rest of your life.

As a result of the research-validated findings, Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is reimbursed by Medicare and other commercial payers for qualified patients who meet criteria similar to traditional cardiac rehab. While post-heart attack individuals make up the majority of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program at the Cardiovascular Center of Marin, persons interested in applying the cardiac disease reversal principles as a preventative measure against heart attack and stroke are also eligible to participate on a self-pay basis.

The principles of the Ornish heart disease program we offer here at the Cardiovascular Center of Marin can be found in Dr. Ornish’s book, “Reversing Heart Disease.” Dr. Ornish’s book, “The Spectrum,” offers a wider range — or spectrum — of groups of food from which to choose for the person who wants to eat better to avoid cardiovascular disease. More information about the diet can also be found at https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/ornish-diet/reviews, a review of best diets by U.S. News and World Report, and the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine website itself, https://www.ornish.com.