The Nation's Health + [Nutrition]

Nutrition: Another Ornish casualty

Barry's lipoproteins were nearly all corrected to perfection: LDL 64 mg, HDL 57 mg, triglycerides 45 mg. He was approaching the Track Your Plaque goal of 60/60/60, the levels we find tip the scales heavily in your favor for achieving plaque reversal.

But one problem still prominently persisted: small LDL . Of Barry's 64 mg of total LSL, 90% of his LDL were small.

Barry was already on niacin (Slo-Niacin; Upsher Smith)1000 mg per day and fish oil, 4000 mg per day, both of which contribute to correction of this pattern. He had added occasional raw almonds and oat bran to his daily habits, both of which also help suppress small LDL. "I thought you told me that small LDL should go away if I did all this!" he lamented in frustration.

We probed Barry's diet choices more closely. "I eat really healthy foods, just like an Ornish program." Uh oh.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"For breakfast, I have two slices of whole wheat toast--no butter or margarine, of course! I'll have Shredded Wheat with skim milk. That's it. My typical lunch is low-fat turkey--no mayonnaise!--on whole wheat. I'll add some low-fat whole wheat crackers or pretzels. That's pretty much my habit."

"How about dinner?"

"Dinner varies a lot. I'll usually have a low-fat meat like chicken or turkey, never beef, a vegetable, and a potato. I love rolls but I try to make them whole wheat. I don't use gravy. I love ice cream, so I've been having low-fat frozen yogurt instead. I guess that's about it."

Barry had indeed been counseled on how we approach nutrition. We, of course, do not endorse the low-fat approach of the Ornish program. Low saturated and hydrogenated fat, yes, but not the super-strict low-fat, "all fat is bad" approach of Dr. Dean Ornish.

Barry's diet is typical of someone on a low-fat restriction. When I asked him why he was eating this way, he admitted that he'd seen Dr. Ornish on a TV program in which he persuasively proclaimed that he reversed heart disease in his patients over the past nearly 20 years using this low-fat approach.

That explained it. Barry's nearly pure carbohydrate diet was triggering high blood sugar responses after meals, causing his insulin to skyrocket and magnifying the small LDL pattern.

I advised Barry to dramatically reduce his carbohydates like breads, pretzels, low-fat yogurt, crackers, etc. Instead, he could increase his lean proteins like eggs, egg whites, Egg Beaters, raw nuts and seeds, low-fat (yes, low-fat!) dairy products like yogurt and cottage cheese (both high protein), and healthy oils.

I've seen this happen with many people over the years: A severe low-fat restriction becomes a high-carbohydate diet. It's not uncommon for many people to have more than 70% of calories from carbohydrates on these programs.

The low-fat approach worked in the era of high-fat diets in the 1980s. In 2006, where convenience foods made with carbohydrates, especially wheat, predominate and pack 80% of supermarket shelves, low-fat is now a distorted nutritional mistake that leads to problems like Barry's uncontrolled small LDL, and often pre-diabetic or overt diabetes.