Published:
May 8, 2017
Last Updated:
June 2, 2021

Ornish Diet: What is It? What You Need to Know

The Ornish Diet was created in 1977 by Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. The diet was created to help people “feel better, live longer, lose weight and gain health,” and consists of three major components: nutrition, stress management, and exercise.

In terms of nutrition, the diet recommends low-fat, plant-based foods, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Soy products
  • Nonfat dairy products
  • Egg whites in their natural form (not packaged liquid egg whites)
  • Good fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids

Unlike many other diet fads, the Ornish Diet does not solely focus on what you eat, rather emphasizing the importance of exercise, stress management, and relationships in addition to the foods on your plate.

How does the Ornish Diet Work?

Along with changes in nutrition, the Ornish diet involves making changes to your lifestyle, such as prioritizing exercise, improving stress management, and fostering strong and healthy relationships, in order to make a beneficial impact on your health and well-being.

Ornish categorizes food into five groups, also known as a “spectrum,” from healthiest (Group 1) to least healthy (Group 5). Each group within the spectrum consists of different guidelines:

  • Group 1Predominately fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nonfat dairy products.
  • Group 2: Consists of mainly plant-based foods, however there is an increase in monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, otherwise known as “healthy” fats. These foods include avocados, seeds, nuts, and canola oil.
  • Group 3: Includes some seafood, such as salmon, and reduced-fat dairy products.
  • Group 4: Consists of foods that have fewer nutrients and more fat, as well as animal products. Poultry, whole milk and dairy products, mayonnaise, pastries, and cookies are all examples of foods within Group 4.
  • Group 5: The end of the spectrum and least healthy, Group 5, is highest in saturated fat and trans fatty acids, or unhealthy fats. This group consists of fried foods, red meat, along with many other high-fat foods.

Based on your health needs and goals, you can find where you are on the spectrum and make changes to your diet as you see fit.

When it comes to fitness, Ornish emphasizes regular, moderate exercise, prioritizing aerobic activities, resistance training, and flexibility. Ornish encourages a minimum of 30 minutes a day or an hour every other day of aerobic activities, along with resistance or strength training 2-3 times per week. Whether you are following a diet plan or not, regular exercise, in big or small increments, can lead to substantial long-term benefits, such as preventing chronic diseases and promoting mental health and well-being.

Stress management can be a difficult task for many, however finding self-care practices that work for you and setting aside time each day can make a significant impact on your mental and physical health. There are many ways to manage stress, such as deep breathingmeditation, or yoga. If you find yourself needing additional help, Health Coaches are available to work with you in order to effectively manage stress and prevent it from standing in the way of your goals.

What Do You Eat on the Ornish Diet

Where some diets focus on food restrictions, the Ornish Diet does not focus on counting calories or tracking your nutrient intake. Although there are suggestions for nutrition that are encouraged, the diet can be done in moderation.

In general, the Ornish Diet is low-fat, plant-based diet, and predominately consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nonfat dairy, and egg whites, as well as healthy fats such as foods with omega-3 fatty acids. According to Ornish, the diet emphasizes real foods as they’re found in nature rather than processed foods, along with fiber and many complex carbohydrates.

Remember, be sure to check in with your personal health care practitioner and/or dietitian to determine if following this certain dietary protocol is right for you.

The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Dietary Guidelines, are as follows:

Eat Mostly Plants in Their Natural Form

Plant-based foods include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Non-fat dairy foods (no more than two servings/day)
  • Egg whites

Ornish recommends small, frequent meals spread throughout the day in order to maintain or reach a healthy body weight and keep energy levels constant.

Limit Empty Carbs:

The Ornish Diet does not ban sugar intake; however, it is not encouraged. The guidelines recommend limiting added sugars, non-fat sweets, and refined carbohydrates to no more than two servings/day. Bad carbs include foods such as:

  • Refined white flour and white rice
  • Concentrated sweeteners
  • Processed foods such as chips

Alcohol is also not encouraged but is allowed in limited amounts. If alcohol is consumed, only one serving per day (1.5 ounces of liquor, 4 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer) is recommended.

Four Grams a Day of Healthy Fats

An important aspect of the Ornish Diet is that it is very low-fat, with a nutrition plan having no more than ten percent of calories being from fat. These calories from fat should come from fats found in whole foods.

According to the Ornish Diet, healthy fats include:

  • Fish oil
  • Flax seed oil
  • Plankton-based omega-3 fatty acids
  • Small amounts of nuts and seeds

Ornish also notes limiting cholesterol to 10 milligrams or less per day. Instead of using non-fat dairy products, you can also use nondairy products, which tend to be cholesterol-free.

Due to the high concentration of fat in nuts, they are only allowed in small amounts, with the suggestion of three or less servings per day. However, specific nuts and seeds contain antioxidants and cardio-protective phytochemicals that contribute to cardiovascular health benefits. For example, studies have shown that almonds lower LDL cholesterol and protect heart health.

Eat Mostly Plant-Based Proteins

Eating plant-based proteins instead of animal products will not only avoid consuming high amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol, but also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Even though animal products, such as poultry, are not restricted, Ornish encourages followers to stick to plant-based proteins.

Plant-based proteins include:

  • Egg whites
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Non-fat yogurt
  • Non-fat cheese

Limit Sodium

The Ornish Diet recommends using spices, herbs, and other natural flavors, such as citrus and vinegars, to flavor food instead of salt. According to the American Heart Association, eating less sodium can significantly lower your risk for high blood pressure, which is the highest risk factor for heart disease, as well as reduce bloating.

Reduce Caffeine Intake

Reducing the intake of stimulants such as caffeine can lead to a more balanced, calm and peaceful way of living, according to Ornish. For this reason, the Ornish Diet discourages drinking coffee and limiting intake to one cup or less of coffee, up to two cups of decaf, or up two cups of black tea per day.

Although caffeine can lessen fatigue, speed up metabolism and often improve your mood, there are also adverse effects. Caffeine increases your heart rate and causes a quick spike in blood pressure, which are risks the Ornish Diet aims to avoid completely by partaking in this diet.

Starting a new diet and making changes to your nutrition may seem overwhelming at first, however the Ornish Diet encourages each follower to make choices based on personal preference and at a pace comfortable for them.

If you are looking to start the Ornish diet, check out these healthy recipes, like a Lotus Stem SaladDairy-Free Berry Vanilla Soft-Serve, or a Vegan Chickpea Omelet.

Ornish Diet: Pros and Cons

Like many other diet plans, the Ornish Diet has benefits, as well as downsides.

Pro: Weight Loss

The Ornish Diet may contribute to weight loss due to the emphasis on foods high in nutrients and low in fat like fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins. In a study done comparing the Ornish Diet to other popular diets, results found that participants following the Ornish Diet lost more weight on average after one year compared to those following those other diets that similarly reduced carbohydrates.

Pro: Disease Prevention

In addition to weight loss, there has been research done to show how the Ornish Diet aids in disease prevention, although this study was funded by Ornish. Following this diet plan can reduce levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and inflammation which are all risk factors for heart disease, as well as preventing and controlling Type 2 diabetes.

Pro: Flexibility & Cost

The Ornish Diet is designed to be relatively flexible and easier to follow due to no foods being completely avoided, but instead limited in amount. Depending on where you are on the spectrum of the diet, the most healthful end may be more expensive to follow. In general, processed foods are often less expensive than plant-based products and whole foods, which are all a large part of the Ornish Diet. However, buying whole grains in bulk and other smart shopping tips can help limit your spending while partaking in this plan.

Con: Risk Factors

Potential risk factors that the diet may lead to are nutritional deficiencies and problems surrounding the very low intake of fat.

The recommendation from most health experts is to consume 20-35% of your total daily calories from fat, as fat is required for many critical processes in the body. The Ornish Diet plan only allows for ten percent of total daily calories coming from fat, which is significantly lower than the recommendation.

It is also important to note that following the Ornish Diet may require monitoring intake of vitamins or adding supplements due to the limited amount of meat and certain animal products. Following a Vegetarian diet has been shown to result in lower levels of important nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc.

The Ornish protocol does recommend a low-dose multivitamin and mineral supplement with B12, fish oil, and calcium supplements while following this plan, which could prevent one from developing any nutrient deficiencies. Always check with your personal health care practitioner before starting any new supplement regimen.

The bottom line

Overall, the Ornish Diet encourages a low-fat, plant-based diet, along with improvements in your lifestyle such as prioritizing exercise, learning how to manage stress, and developing stronger and healthier relationships with loved ones. Starting this lifestyle program may help you meet your health and wellness goals, whether you are looking to lose weight, prevent chronic disease, or feel happier and healthier altogether.

Extensive research studies have proven that the Ornish Diet can lead to benefits such as weight loss and disease prevention, especially if you are looking to lower the risk of heart disease. Additionally, this diet plan, unlike many other popular fad diets today, is relatively flexible, easy to follow, and cost-effective if you make smart shopping decisions.

However, the Ornish Diet can potentially increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies and not having enough fat in your diet. Before starting this diet consulting with a physician may be smart to find out if the Ornish Program is right for you, and if so, what potential supplements you can introduce into your diet to avoid these risks.

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