The Nation's Health + [Nutrition]

Nutrition: Dr. Ornish goofed

"I don't think I need the Track Your Plaque program. I've been doing the Ornish program, so I think that my plaque has already regressed."

So proclaimed Bruce, a recent patient I saw in consultation. Having suffered a heart attack three years earlier, he was thoroughly convinced that he was now cured following the Ornish program.

Indeed, back in the 1980s, many of us existed on greasy, high-fat diets of cheeseburgers, French fries, fried chicken, plenty of butter or margarine, mayonnaise, and the like.

Along came Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote a book called "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery". This book struck a chord during this era and has been a hot-seller ever since it was published.

Does it work? In my experience, no , it does not.

Dr. Ornish claimed that sharply curtailing fat intake reverses heart disease. Closer to the truth is that, in people who start with high fat intakes, a low-fat restriction is indeed an improvement. This will lead to a modest improvement in blood flow in the coronary arteries due to a phenomenon called "endothelial dysfunction." This means that arteries will dilate modestly when specific changes are made. Thus, you will see minimal improvements in the measures he used (stress testing with nuclear imaging.)

What it does not mean is that plaque has regressed, certainly not "reversed".

In fact, our experience (over 10 years ago, when we first used the Ornish approach) was that the majaority of people did worse on this low-fat program: HDL dropped, triglycerides increased, blood sugar increased, inflammatory measures like C-reactive protein increased. Some people even magnified diabetic or pre-diabetic patterns.

It's almost certain that Bruce has not reversed his coronary plaque. In fact, I would bet that his plaque has grown substantially. Bruce started three years earlier from a diet high in unhealthy fats. If the expected rate of coronary plaque growth is 30% per year, perhaps he slowed it--to 20% or so. Since he didn't have a heart scan score at the time of his heart attack, we'll never know if he truly did reduce the quantity of coronary plaque he had.

But when I met him on his Ornish program, Bruce showed disturbing patterns that included an HDL cholesterol of 38 mg, 70% of all LDL particles were small, triglycerides measured 209 mg, and C-reactive protein was high at 2.8 mg/l. In other words, Bruce's plaque causes were far from corrected. Perhaps they were worse.

The Ornish program, despite it's ambitious claims, has outlived its usefulness. In 2006, it is an antiquated relic of a time past when lifestyle habits and technology were different.