Welcome to Influencers!
Dr. Dean Ornish has dedicated his life to improving our health and wellness. With years of research, publications, and health programs, he has discovered several clear rules on how to stay healthy.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Discover the research of the legendary Dr. Dean Ornish.
Truth About Diet
We have with us Dean. Thank you so much for coming on. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?
It’s a pleasure to be on your show. I’m the Founder and proud President of a nonprofit, Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. For the last 40 years, I’ve directed a series of randomized trials and demonstration projects showing what a powerful difference changes in diet and lifestyle can make, a whole foods plant-based diet that’s naturally low both in fat and refined carbs, various stress management techniques including meditation and yoga, moderate exercise, and what we call psychosocial support, which is love and intimacy. To reduce it further to eat well, move more, stress less, and love more. It’s using these very high tech, expensive state of the art scientific measures to prove the power of these very simple and low-tech and low-cost interventions. The more diseases we study and the more underlying biological mechanisms we do research on, the more reasons we have to explain why these changes are so powerful and how quickly people can get better.
We started by showing for the first time that heart disease could be reversed. Later, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, early stage prostate cancer, and by extension, breast cancer. We’ve looked at some of the mechanisms. We found that when you change your lifestyle, it changes your gene expression. Turning on good genes that keep you healthy, turning off bad genes, particularly the ones that cause heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, and what are called the oncogenes that promote prostate, breast and colon cancer, over 500 genes in three months affected by these simple lifestyle changes. We published this with Craig Venter in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We did a study with Elizabeth Blackburn, who got the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work with telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that regulate aging. As we get older, our telomeres get shorter. These are the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that keep your shoelace from unraveling. They keep your DNA from unraveling, and as we get older, our telomeres get shorter, and as our telomeres get shorter, our lives get shorter. The risk of premature death from everything goes up correspondingly. We did a study where we found that these same lifestyle changes can lengthen telomeres, and in fact reversing aging at a cellular level. With all this talk about personalized medicine, it turns out these same lifestyle changes affect so many different diseases. It’s because they share many different underlying biological mechanisms.
First of all, your name is Dean Ornish. You’re a doctor. You’ve got a lot of notoriety of years and years for what people call the Ornish diet where you promoted this plant-based, low-fat, low-carbohydrate, is that right?
Correct. It’s a whole foods plant-based diet, predominantly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, low in sugar, low in fat.
Over the years you’ve been involved in some pretty monumental research. When you were in medical school, nobody believed that you could reverse disease with. Is that correct?
That’s correct. It’s not just diet. It’s the whole program of diet, exercise, meditation, and social support. Everything we’ve done was thought impossible over the last 40 years. People thought it was impossible to reverse heart disease, impossible to reverse prostate cancer. All these various things will change your genes to lengthen your telomeres.
We say, “You’re not feeling well. You should change your diet. It has a huge effect on you.” 30 or 40 years ago, people in the medical complex thought that this was completely preposterous.
They did. Not just the diet. I remember during my residency at Mass General, we talked about one of my attending physicians, who was world-renowned, wrote a standard textbook, came up to me and said, “You think that the mind affects your body? What a stupid idea.” I looked at him, I said, “Have you ever had an erection?”
Mass General is Harvard’s teaching medical institute, so these are some of the top minds in the industry. 40 years ago, they didn’t see a connection between what we accept as fact today.
They didn’t think the mind affected the body for better and for worse. They didn’t think that diet played that important role. It was all about drugs and surgery. Our unique contribution has been to use this very high tech, expensive state of the art scientific measures to power these very low-tech and low-cost and often ancient interventions.
Let’s break down why they’re so important and what their effects are? In the early days of your work, you looked at this plant-based diet. What is it that happens when we’re not on it and what happens to us when we are?
Our bodies have a remarkable capacity to begin healing if we stop doing what’s causing the problem. Our work has always been about the guiding principle has been to treat the cause. To a much larger degree than most people had realized, the main cause of so many chronic diseases are the lifestyle choices that we make each day, how well we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise we get, how much love and support we have, whether or not we smoke cigarettes, how much sleep. All these things play an amazingly important role. We’re reaching a convergence where this finally is the right idea at the right time. On the one hand, the limitations of conventional drugs or surgery are becoming increasingly well documented at the same time that the power of these lifestyle changes is also becoming well documented. Studies have shown that in stable patient, stents and angioplasties don’t do much. They don’t prolong life, they don’t prevent heart attacks. They don’t even reduce angina.
A stent or an angioplasty is where you run a tube into the artery of the heart and you’d try to squeeze the blockage to make more room for the blood to flow, but they don’t work. We spend tens of billions of dollars on those every year that are a dangerous, invasive, expensive, and largely ineffective. If you’re in the middle of having a heart attack, they can be lifesaving, but most people who get them are not. The same is true for men with early stage prostate cancer, which is the most common cancer in men other than skin cancer. There was a major study in The New England Journal of Medicine last year that showed that after ten years in a randomized trial, men who did nothing lived as long as those who had surgery or radiation, and yet the surgery and radiation often maimed guys in the most personal ways because you often are impotent or incontinent so you cannot have sex. You’re wearing a diaper for no real benefit. Maybe one out of fifteen men benefits from having these treatments.
The same is true for Type 2 diabetes. Getting your blood sugar down with drugs doesn’t prevent the horrible complications of diabetes nearly as well as getting it down with diet and lifestyle. We’ve shown that we can slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early stage prostate cancer in a randomized trial with the Chairs of Urology at both UCSF and at Sloan Kettering by making these same lifestyle changes.
As we move into the era of reimbursement now that Medicare is covering my program, it becomes financially viable and sustainable for doctors and hospitals and physician groups to offer it, and that goes back to change in medical education. This emerging field that I helped found called Lifestyle Medicine, which is to use lifestyle, not only to help prevent disease, but even to reverse it, our time has finally come.
It’s hard to take on massive change at once. What are the small changes that I could make in the short-term other than attending one of your programs? Aside from attending your program, what are some short-term changes I can make? Something that I could do in the next 24 to 48 hours?
We’ve trained hospitals and clinics and physician groups around the country and we’re training more and more every day. Medicare and many insurance companies will pay for that. We also do twelve-day residential immersion retreat. Go to the Ornish.com site, It has all the information on that as well as on our program. We found there are two basic strategies for helping people make sustainable changes. One is to make big changes all at once, even though that’s counterintuitive. When you make changes all at once in a number of different areas, you generally feel so much better so quickly. It reframes the reason for making these changes from preventing something bad from happening years down the road to improving the quality of life and how much better you feel, and then it comes from your own experience. It’s like, “When I do this, I feel good. When I do that, I don’t feel so good, so maybe I’ll do more of this and less of that.”
The other approach is to make small gradual changes. I wrote a book ago called The Spectrum, which was based on the finding in all of our studies that the more you change, the more you improve in every way we can measure, and the more you change, the better you feel in every way that matters, and so you decide how much you change. I chaired Google Health with Marissa Mayer. We were trying to come up with these very complex algorithms for personalizing a diet. I realized one day, I said “We’re making this so complex. Let’s make it radically simple.” Part of what we’ve learned is that even more than being healthy, people want to feel like they’re the ones choosing to make these changes and no one else is telling them what to do. Even more than being healthy, people want to feel free and in control.
Sometimes when I lecture, I jumped in that this goes back to the first dietary intervention when God said, “Don’t eat the apple.” That didn’t go so well and that was God talking. Instead of me telling you how much you should change, I’d say, “First of all, what do you want to accomplish?” You say, “I want to be healthier. I want to live longer.” Then I say, “Why do you want to live longer?” Which is something most doctors don’t ask. “I’ve found that if it’s meaningful, it’s sustainable. I want to watch my kids grow up. I want to write a book, I want to do another podcast.” You’re dealing those changes with meaning. If they’re meaningful, then they’re sustainable. After you decide that you want to be healthy and live longer, then I’d say, “What are you eating now?” I categorize foods in my book because part of what I’ve learned is if you go on a diet, chances are you’re going to go off it. Diets are all about what you can’t have and what you must do. People don’t like to feel controlled. When you go off to diet, you have all that shame and guilt and anger and humiliation, which really are toxic. Instead of calling foods good or bad because it’s a very small step to what you call foods good or bad. If you eat bad food, I’m a bad person, and then you have all that same toxic stuff. Just say food is food, but some foods are healthier than others.
I categorize foods from the healthiest group one to the least healthy group five, and say, “What matters most is your overall way of eating and living.” I say, “What are you eating now?” You say, “I’m eating mostly unhealthy group four and five.” The usual suspects, red meat and donuts. Instead of saying, “Eat this, not that,” I’d say, “How much are you willing to change?” You go, “I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me that before. I’ll eat less of the unhealthy group four and five and more of the groups one through three.” I’ll scale them down sometimes, but directionally moving in a healthier direction. I’d say, “How much exercise you’re doing?” “Not that much.” “How much are you willing to do?” “I’ll walk twenty or 30 minutes a day.” “How much yoga and meditation?” You’d be like, “Zero. I’ll meditate ten minutes a day.” “How much love and support do you have in your life?” “Not enough, but I’ll make that more of a priority to spend time with my friends and family.” I’ll say, “Great.” We’ll track it, we’ll support it and then after a month or so, we’ll say, “Did you accomplish your goals?” Let’s say you want to lose ten pounds and you lost six after a month, I’d say, “You’re on the right track.” If you go further in a healthier direction, you can probably go the rest of the way. I like this approach because you can’t fail. There’s no diet to get on, so there’s no diet to get off. It’s the most compassionate approach and we found it’s the most sustainable.
I was crushed by a bull in Pamplona, and so I’ve been on a pretty significant physical therapy regimen and it was terrible. I crushed my left side, tore muscle on my right, I have two herniated discs, and I’m in constant pain and constant physical therapy.
Why did you decide to do that, I’m just curious?
I had a bad breakup. My reward for getting through it was I would travel every month to the biggest event in the world, wherever it was. It’s Pamplona Running of the Bulls. I did the run and I made it through the run fine. I ended up in the stadium with the bulls. There’s this thing called the winner effect, which is mammals that experience a win flood with testosterone and make them more likely to win their next fight or battle, but if it keeps happening, they become overly confident and get hunted because they’re out in the open or they get into unnecessary fights and die. I was in the stadium and I didn’t even know that they let the bulls back in one at a time. I kept doing more and more daring things. I did something too daring, and when the bull entered the stadium, it missed its jump and landed on me. I ran up to a bull initially and I touched it and I ran away. The next bull came, and I ran up to it and I slapped on its butt. It freaked out and looked at me like I’m crazy. Luckily, it got distracted and I ran away. When the bulls entered the stadium, they opened these two gates and they run up a ramp and they jump in and people lie down on the ground. I thought I was invincible, so I did it as it’s about to enter, missed its jump and landed on me. I thought I was paralyzed. My point in all this is that I know that if my physical therapist assigns a lot of exercises, I’m not going to do them. I won’t find the time. If my physical therapist tells me, “Go take a class, go do yoga,” I schedule it ahead of time and it’s a group activity, I will show up and do it. When there’s a community effect and you feel cared for and supported, that is a greater motivator.
It’s part of why we’re getting better adherence than anyone’s ever documented before. Our program is nine weeks long. A year later, 85% to 90% of the people are still following it and every cycle we trained, and the support group, it’s unbelievable. Less than half of people who are prescribed medications to lower their cholesterol or blood pressure taking them four months later.
That’s popping a pill and requires zero effort.
A lot of doctors say, “My patients will take a pill, but there’s no way they’re going to change their lifestyle. It’s too hard.” The pill doesn’t make you feel better, but the lifestyle changes do. In many ways, the pills are fear-based. It’s like, “Take this pill to lower your cholesterol or your blood pressure.” It’s not going to make you feel better. Chances are it may make you feel worse, prevent something bad from happening years down the road that you don’t want to think about, so people don’t. They stop taking it, but when you change their lifestyle because these underlying biological mechanisms are so dynamic, most people find that they feel so much better so quickly in ways that matter most. It reframes the reason for change from fear of dying, which is not sustainable to joy of living. If I am to take on these small changes, where do I start? I know you will ask the question of what am I interested in and what am I willing to do. What are the areas of the biggest impact? If I’m going to focus on one thing, is it sleep? Is it community? Is it cut out red meat? What is that first step? The book Habit talks about these keystone habits. The person who got healthy because they kicked their first cigarette, they said no to it. What’s a good starting point?
The most important starting point is to make the decision that you’re going to empower yourself. For different people, different aspects are more important. For someone who’s stressed out a lot but eats pretty well, the stress management can be important. The most important decision to make is to get started. Awareness is always the first step in healing. When people become aware of how powerful these changes are and how quickly you can feel better and to reframe it from preventing something bad from happening years down the road to improving the quality of life, so many misconceptions. Am I going to live longer or is it going to seem longer if I eat healthfully. The only way you to get to live to be 100 is by not doing all the things that make you want to live to be 100. If it tastes good, it can’t be good for you. All these variations on that theme, but in fact you can eat foods that are delicious and nutritious.
The thing to remember is that what you gain is so much more than what you give up. We’re always making choices. We’re talking to each other now, but we could be out doing something different. When people understand, because of these studies, how powerful these changes are, how quickly you can improve, your brain gets more blood, you think more clearly, you have more energy, you need less sleep. You can grow so many new brain neurons through a process called neurogenesis. Your brain can get measurably bigger in a month or so. Your skin gets more blood flow; you look younger; your heart gets more blood flow; your sexual organs get more blood flow; you have more sexual potency; you don’t need as much sleep; you have more energy; you think more clearly. What you gain is so much more than what you give up and it’s particularly dramatic if you’re sick. If you have heart disease and you can’t walk across the street without getting angina or chest pain, you can’t make love with your partner, you can’t play with your kids, or go to work, within a few weeks, most people find they can do all of those things. They say like “I like eating cheeseburgers, but not that much because what I gain is so much more than what I give up.”
Besides taking your program, is there a book that you have or some material that we should check out or is it all on the site?
If you got to Ornish.com, that’s probably the best doorway to all of these things. A lot of the research studies are there. The sites offering our program are there. The retreats that we’re doing are there. The book I wrote is called The Spectrum. It’s a profoundly empowering and hope-inducing approach that we found that the more diseases we study and the more underlying biological mechanisms we research, the more reasons we have to explain why these same simple changes are so powerful and how quickly you can get better in every way we can measure it.
Thank you so much for coming on. Are you also on social media?
I have to say as somebody who is a little overly obsessed with his diet and what I put in my body, thank you for helping create that cultural revolution and opening the scientific world up to what seems completely obvious. I can’t imagine a world where it isn’t, so thank you so much for trailblazing and being daring there.
Listeners, stay tuned because up next is the anonymous interview. If you can figure out who it is, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.
About Dr. Dean Ornish
Dean Ornish, M.D. is the Founder and President of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and also Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Ornish was trained in internal medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. His research has been published in the leading peer-reviewed medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine. His work has been featured in all major media, including cover stories in Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. He has received numerous awards, including the 1994 Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Public Health Hero Award from the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Ornish is the medical editor for the Huffington Post and his TED talks have been viewed by more than 5 million people. The author of six books, all national bestsellers, he was recognized by Life magazine as one of the 50 most influential members of his generation and by Forbes magazine as one of the worlds seven most powerful teachers. Dr. Ornish lives in the San Francisco area with his wife and partner, Anne, and children Lucas (Luke) and Jasmine (Jazz). For more information: www.ornish.com.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now my favorite part of every episode, the anonymous interview. We have the incredible Mike. Mike, thanks so much for coming on.
It’s my pleasure, Jon. It’s nice to be here.
You have such an interesting story and background but we can’t really talk about it because it would be giving away too much. Let’s start off with some of the basics. Where are you from?
I am from a very tiny town called Eagle Lake, Minnesota.
Was there somebody who inspired you to go down the path that you went, maybe a teacher, an experience or something?
The first big experience that truly changed my life at is very notable and define the course of the rest of my life happened when I was about fourteen years old. I grew up lower middle class. Growing up, I heard these phrases regularly, “We can’t afford it.” Because I grew up in a very tiny part of Minnesota, the weather there was extremely cold, 35 below. It’s horrible. My dad worked a lot; he’s a barber. He was also the building inspector, the city clerk. He did a lot of community work as well. I didn’t see him a lot. I’m the oldest of four kids. Growing up, I remember we can’t afford it, being cold and being late and last for almost everything. When someone said, “What do you want to be when you grew up?” I’d say, “I want to be rich, warm and first.” The reason this is relevant is because I was not good at school and I always love technology, and a neighbor who knew our circumstance one day loan to me his Apple II. In fact, he forced me to accept the money as a babysitting job. He forced me to babysit his Apple II computer. I taught myself how to program during a Christmas vacation and subsequently taught myself how to write video games which really defined everything that happened to me from that point forward. That was a big, big motivator. As we move on through the story, I can tell you how that shaped and solidified my relationship and my love of my dad even more.
To give people a bit of a hint of what you’ve managed to accomplish since you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in content. How many bestsellers have you helped produced?
I have as of now over 1,600 bestselling authors under my wing and I’m working on my fourteenth book right now. I barely passed high school, so I’m a classic, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
There’s that really funny thing that there’s a certain group of people who drop out of school that just become so disproportionately successful. The classic examples are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. They’re both Harvard dropouts. Statistically speaking, you’re better off dropping out of Harvard, you’ll make more money than graduating from Harvard.
It get really comes down to your personality type, your drive, your motivation, your values. For me, I wasn’t good at school. I was just horrible. I had severe ADHD, pretty classic, fairly OCD on top of that. I definitely love perfection and systemization. I have very good pattern recognition skills. I’m very easily flustered or annoyed or anxious in an environment like that. I am much better at and I’ve always been better at figuring stuff out myself, deconstructing, disassembling. From the earliest age on, my dad gave me access to the woodshop and tools. He just said, “Go make stuff.” I was known for taking stuff apart, not necessarily putting it back together but figuring out how it worked along the way. If you look at my history since, everything I’ve done basically involved deconstructing stuff, systemizing it and building it back up by simplifying it more. That’s how I help other people with their businesses or their careers.
Let’s give people a few more hints. Sometimes it gets a little easy if somebody is a celebrity. We’ve had members of Maroon 5 or well-known actors and musicians but you’re a business personality. You make people stars. What kind of hints can we give them about who you are or things that you’ve done?
You go on to people who really inspired and motivated me. At one point, I owned a digital marketing agency. It was one of the first digital marketing agencies in Minneapolis. In 1999 it got acquired by the largest advertising agency in the world at the time which is called Campbell Mithun. They’re owned by the Interpublic Group. From there, I made a feature film. Between there, I also went through divorce. At one point, I was $250,000 in debt. My business was failing. I was just lost and miserable. A friend of mine introduced me to Tony Robbins by way of his CDs. I ended up getting his collection. After listening to fifteen minutes of one of his recordings, it was Personal Power, I was like, “This guy is exactly what I need.” I bought Tony’s products, listen to fifteen minutes, ended up signing up for all the stuff and it changed my life. Less than a year later, our company was being acquired by this billion-dollar agency. What people didn’t know is behind the scenes, even though we’re working with celebrity clients like 20th Century Fox and Sony, we’re doing movie promotions and we had produced one of the largest distributed video games and breakfast cereal, six million copies. This was back before those kinds of numbers were unheard of. I ended up going to a Tony Robbins event that turned my life around. I swore to myself, “Somebody I’m going to repay the favor. I’m going to give this guy something for saving and changing my life.”
If you fast forward not quite ten years, I ended up becoming very good friends with someone who was responsible for producing all of Tony’s products and working firm for years. She called me and said, “Tony needs help. Would you meet with him with online marketing?” By then I was a pretty well-known online marketer. I developed a software system. I was known in the video marketing circle in particular. I said, “Absolutely.” I ended up meeting him. Got a long grade; I helped him build his studio at home and then I introduced him too at the time some of the biggest personalities in online marketing and these are people like Frank Kern, Jeff Walker, Brendon Burchard, these are people who a lot of people know to this day. Russell Brunson was another one. We ended up helping Tony with a product launch and also helping him really strengthen what he did online and also had a friendship. It was a genuine conversation with a real person, as close as you can have with him. From there, that ended up enabling me to meet with a lot of other names. I ended up working with Paula Abdul for a period of time and Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is another super fascinating guy. I really enjoy and appreciate his genius. He really is remarkable.
I just think that we’ve given them a ton of material anymore and it will become too easily discoverable. Listeners, you have between now and the next episode to figure who Mike is. If you do, you can be invited to The Salon by Influencers. The best thing is listening to the next episode, who knows? You might be a bestselling author and get to hang out with people like Tony Robbins. Good luck.