Dean’s Diet Principle
In a nutshell, Dean’s medical view of health and wellness rests on this: your lifestyle affects your health. What you eat or do not eat and what you do or do not do will contribute greatly to your health:
“When you eat mindfully, by paying attention to what you eat, you get more pleasure with fewer calories. We've all had the experience of eating mindlessly, like watching a movie and eating a bag of popcorn. You look down and the popcorn is gone, and it's like, 'Who ate this?' because you were not really paying attention, you were engrossed in the movie and not in what you were eating. But if you are eating mindfully, then you can really enjoy what you are eating, much in the same way as you might savor a fine wine. I love chocolate, dark chocolate in particular. So I can savor the dark chocolate, and enjoy it and get an intense amount of pleasure in just a few calories.”
Much of the information from which we benefit today would not have been possible without the persistent efforts of people like Dean to introduce preventive medicine to the media. We are very privileged to have someone like him, who is truly dedicated to improving life for everyone.
Dean Ornish was born in 1953 in Dallas, Texas. Raised in a well-to do-family, he had a comfortable upbringing and grew up with all the love and care that a child should have. Dean’s parents played a significant role in his future career choice, as they were the ones who taught him the importance of eating healthy.
Aside from the health-conscious environment in which Dean grew up, several experiences with family members who had diseases opened his eyes to the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. As such, as he grew up, he became more and more interested in medicine and often read articles about health and nutrition.
Even at a young age, Dean proved to be an intelligent person. During his high school years at the Hillcrest High School (of the Dallas Independent School District), he was often praised by teachers for his brilliance. Afterwards, Dean entered the University of Texas at Austin to study Humanities, where he not only graduated as the summa cum laude but also gave the baccalaureate address during the graduation ceremony. He later pursued his studies by enrolling at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he earned his Doctorate degree.
Prior to establishing a name for himself in the medical world, Dean first served as a Clinical Fellow in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Afterwards, he applied for a medical internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1981 and eventually became a resident doctor. Dean worked there until 1984, when he resigned to start his own practice.
Reversing Heart Disease
During the 1970s, the concept of the relationship between health and lifestyle grew more significant due to new information being brought to the media by medical experts such as Dean. Influenced by the suffering of his own family members due to coronary heart disease (CAD), Dean was inspired to make a top priority of fighting the disease. In 1977, he led a series of clinical research studies to prove that how a person lives, what he eats and his daily routines greatly affect the development of CAD, and that making changes to one’s lifestyle can reduce the risk.
Dean has given due credit to all those who have helped him in his research, including Swami Satchidananda, an Indian spiritual counsellor and yoga master, whom Dean often cites as the one who helped shape his views of health and wellness.
The research was demonstrated in a trial which would later become known as the “Lifestyle Heart Trial,” and was published in “The Lancet” (a well-known medical journal) and the Journal of the American Medical Association many years later. The tests, which were conducted on patients who already had coronary heart disease, not only proved that changing lifestyle habits were effective against it, but also showed that people who utilized this treatment experienced better results than those who followed traditional medical advice and relied on prescription drugs. The research’s success inspired other medical experts to conduct their own tests, which came to similar conclusions.
Dean’s research greatly impacted the medical community, which for many years has relied on traditional methods of treating CAD which cause inconvenient and sometimes-risky side effects in their patients. Not only did this new method of treatment prove to be safer and more effective, but it was also cheaper and more convenient compared to traditional methods such as operations and surgeries.
The Birth of the “Preventive Medicine Research Institute”
Encouraged by his team’s success, Dean established the “Preventive Medicine Research Institute” to do further research on ways to help people suffering from diseases to find safer, more convenient and less-expensive ways of treating their illnesses.
When Dean and his team at PMRI published their findings, there was an initial flood of criticism and skepticism, especially from his fellow medical doctors who were trained in the traditional methods of treatment. In fact, when the PMRI started, some medical experts published articles that sought to counter and criticize Dean’s findings and prove that traditional methods were still the best.
In spite of the strong opposition faced by Dean and his team at the PMRI, they were not discouraged from promoting their new method of treatment. Having seen the results first-hand, Dean became more determined to help people understand that they can prevent diseases if they start eating healthier and controlling their lifestyles. And, as more and more tests proved the effectiveness of preventive medicine, more and more medical experts began turning their ears.
Dean said in an interview many years later:
“When I began doing this work 36 years ago, there was a lot of criticism and disbelief. But since we've been able to prove, using these very high-tech, expensive, state-of-the-art, scientific measures, how powerful these very low-tech and low-cost and often ancient interventions are, that's changing. The studies are showing that bypass surgery and angioplasties and stents don't really prolong life or prevent heart attacks in people unless they're in the midst of having one, which the vast majority of people are not who undergo those procedures—which we spent $100 billion on last year.”
The growing popularity of preventive medicine also paved the way for dietary nutrition, which was looked down upon by numerous medical experts for years. In an interview, when Dean was asked about the role of nutrition in a person’s health, he said:
“We are beginning to see the limits of surgical and pharmaceutical interventions just as the dynamic efficacy of lifestyle and nutrition are becoming increasingly well-documented. I think that, as these two types of evidence continue to accumulate, physicians and patients alike will have an easier time believing that simple choices can make powerful changes in their health. Already, the public is realizing that diet is important not only for what we exclude but for what we include. There are hundreds of thousands of protective substances in fruits and vegetables, in legumes, and in soy products. This growing awareness makes it an exciting time to be in the nutrition field."
Since then, Dean has become widely-recognized in the medical community, and received invitations from numerous medical institutions to speak and share his research. Aside from this, Dean also began receiving invitations to speak at events and conferences and making appearances on radio and television shows, giving all kinds of advice on how to stay healthy.
Further Research and Success
Sometime in the 1990s, Dean collaborated with the UCSF Chair of Urology, Peter Carroll, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Chair of Urology, William Fair, to conduct a randomized controlled trial to prove that changes in a person’s lifestyle can affect the development or prevention of prostate cancer.
FORMER U.S. President Heeds Dean’s advice
In 1993, Dean was appointed to be the “physician consultant” for then-President Bill Clinton after being invited by Hillary Clinton to serve as a consultant for the chefs of the White House, Air Force One and Camp David. Since then, Dean has remained a close friend of the Clinton family, and in 2010, after Bill Clinton’s cardiac bypass grafts became clogged, Dean met with the former President and encouraged him to follow a plant-based diet with fish oil supplements for maximum nutrition.
Serving on Numerous Boards
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Dean became increasingly well-known for his knowledge and expertise on nutritional diets and preventive treatments. He became a member of the boards of directors of the San Francisco Food Bank, the J. Craig Venter Institute, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the Quincy Jones Foundation. Dean was also appointed to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, which sought newer and more effective ways to treat diseases before they start.
In 2007, Dean became the chairman of the Google Health Advisory Council, a position he held for two years. The following year, he collaborated with Elizabeth Blackburn, another well-known biological researcher, in publishing a study which showed how changing a person’s lifestyle can affect gene expression, which can help prevent the “triggering” of certain genes which may cause disease.
Today, Dr. Dean Ornish continues to study new ways of helping people live healthy and convenient lives. His persistence and passion for serving people have truly benefitted the world in ways he never would’ve imagined. And, despite what he has accomplished, Dean is not yet finished. He still wants to do more, and looks forward to the day when sickness is little more than a memory:
“Having spent 35 years of my life doing research, what I really feel is important now is putting into practice what we already know. At this point, researchers are converging on what constitutes healthier eating and living, which has resulted in a number of recommendations that I will be talking about in my lecture. Going forward we will now not just be investigating the mechanisms by which dietary and lifestyle interventions work, but also collecting data on every patient that participates in our program, giving us a dataset initially of hundreds of thousands and, ultimately, millions of patients.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Preventive Medicine Research Institute
- American Medical Association
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
- Quincy Jones Foundation
- J. Craig Venter Institute
- The San Francisco Food Bank
- United Nations High Commission for Refugees
- Google Health Advisory Council
- The While House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy
Awards and Achievements
- 1994: Received the “Outstanding Young Alumnus Award” from the University of Texas and the “National Public Health Hero Award”
- 1996: Awarded the “Beckmann Medal” by the German Society for Prevention and Rehabilitation of Cardiovascular Diseases and included in the “Most Interesting People of 1996” by People Magazine
- 2007: Received the “Pioneer in Integrative Medicine Award” from the California Pacific Medical Center
- 2010: Received the “Linus Pauling Award” from the Institute of Functional Medicine
- 2011: Received the “Glenn Foundation Award for Research in Aging” and included in TIME Magazine’s “Time 100 List in Integrative Medicine”
- 2013: Received the “Bravewell Collaborative Pioneer of Integrative Medicine Award”
- Received the “Jan J. Kellerman Memorial Award”
- Received a “Presidential Citation” from the American Psychological Association
- Received the “Stanley Wallach Lectureship Award” from the American College of Nutrition
- Received the “Golden Plate Award” from the American Academy of Achievement
- Received the “Sheila Kar Health Foundation Humanitarian Award”
- Included in the “Fifty Most Influential Members of his Generation” by LIFE Magazine
- Included in the “Seven Most Powerful Teachers in the World” by Forbes Magazine
The Huffington Post (Dr. Dean Ornish)
Wikipedia (Dean Ornish)
American Society for Nutrition (Interview with Dr. Dean Ornish)
Los Angeles Times (5 Questions: Dr. Dean Ornish on the power of mindful choices)