Turnin’ Over A New (Lettuce) Leaf (Catchin’ Up – Part IV)

About the same time I was getting back into some easy riding and running, I also started to research something called the Ornish Reversal Diet. This was one of the the cardiac rehab programs mentioned by the nutritionist who came to see me before being discharged from Mission Hospital after my stent procedure. I did some extensive online research, read some of the promotional materials, read some of the criticisms, and some of the high level scientific arguments behind it. Overall I was impressed, and decided I would call the program director to get more specifics about the program here in Asheville.

But before I could call him… he called me.

In the interest of preserving patient/provider confidentiality, I won’t name names, but, as it turns out, the director who heads up the Ornish Reversal Program at Mission Hospital is an acquaintance of mine. A local cyclist I’ve ridden with a few times over the years. He called to tell me more about the program, we chatted a bit, and set up a time to come in for an interview/application process.

Ornish – What Is It, Exactly?

So who’s is this Ornish dude? And what’s this about “reversing” coronary artery disease? Is that really possible?

From Wikipedia

Dean Michael Ornish (born July 16, 1953) is an American physician and researcher. He is the president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. The author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Eat More, Weigh Less and The Spectrum, he is a well-known advocate for using diet and lifestyle changes to treat and prevent heart disease.

I had read enough to be convinced it was worth a try. As I mentioned in the previous post, I don’t want to go through a heart procedure a third time.

Mission Hospital is the first location in North Carolina to offer The Ornish Reversal Program, and it has been in place for less than a year. It is covered by Aetna, my insurance provider, and given the fact that my heart procedure already put me at maximum out of pocket for the year, it was going to be 100% covered.

The program is 9 weeks long, with 2 intensive 4-hour sessions per week. Each session provides equal coverage of four primary aspects of recovery and lifestyle changes:

  • One hour of Exercise, featuring a mix of cario and weight traning
  • One hour heart healthy meal and lecture/discussion, with an emphasis on low-fat, plant-based nutrition.
  • One hour of group support (clearly stated as “not therapy”
  • One hour of stress management featuring a mix of yoga postures, meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques.

“Wait a minute…”, I can hear you asking, “…back up a second. Did you say ‘plant-based nutrition’?”

Yes, the Ornish program is “plant-based”, essentially a vegetarian diet.

“Is this coming from the same person who lost a ton of weight doing a low-carb Atkins diet over a decade ago?”

Yes, it is. I fully embraced low-carb back in 2002, just prior to discovering my cardiac troubles the first time around. I lost nearly 100 pounds using that plan, supported by my cardiologist and primary health care provider, and I vehemently defended critics of Atkins at the time.

I had seriously considered going back on low-carb again this time around, although I wasn’t in need of losing a ton of weight, and it would drastically impact a part of my life that has changed since the last time… craft beer.

I mentioned my success with Atkins to the Ornish program director and he pointed me to some studies that have shown that although low-fat and low-carb diets have both shown an ability to allow people to lose weight and lower their cholesterol numbers, additional studies over the past two decades have shown that low-carb diets don’t have the ability to actually reduce arterial plaque. In fact, they tend to increase plaque, even though cholesterol numbers go down. Whereas low-fat diets have been shown to do both.

I won’t go too far off into my thoughts about this stuff… I’ll save that for future posts. Suffice to say I’m learning a lot, and there is a lot of misinformation out there and I don’t claim to know everything. I’m just trying to find a path that works for me.

The director explained that the change in diet is indeed a major shift in thinking for a lot of people, and said that he doesn’t ask for a life-long commitment. He merely asked that if I agreed to enter the program that I would commit to it fully for the nine weeks… give it a chance.

I could do that.

After a really good conversation, I was even more convinced there was no downside to giving it a try. So I filled out some informational surveys online, including a lengthy profile of my typical eating habits – an exercise that immediately revealed just how poorly I have been eating and was a wake up call in itself! I was almost embarrassed to click the “Submit” link, and my diet isn’t anywhere near as bad as the way many (most?) Americans eat. I then met the director for the interview/application process a few days later and got myself signed up.

A Third Of The Way

I’m now three weeks in to the nine week Ornish Program and so far it has been great! In fact, I started switching toward plant-based immediately upon signing up, figuring there was no point in waiting. I gradually ate up the food that was already in the house and started reading labels.

I also downloaded and read Ornish’s first book, “Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery”.

Could that title be any longer?

As I have moved along through the program, there have been quite a few surprises, most of them food related. In no particular order:

  • I am stunned by how many vegetarian/vegan products are available these days (not counting the obvious things like fruits and produce, raw foods, etc.
  • I am both stunned and dismayed at how many vegetarian/vegan products are NOT heart healthy (ie.. very high in fat, oils and other processed ingredients).
  • I am pleasantly surprised at how many of the products that ARE both low-fat and vegetarian (aka “Ornish Approved” actually taste good.
  • I am discovering that, at going-on-50, I am not nearly as adverse to spending time in the kitchen as I thought I would be/have been.
  • I am really glad that craft beer is not excluded from my lifestyle, though I have been cutting back significantly.
  • I have dropped nearly a dozen pounds in four weeks… and really haven’t been “trying”. I have indeed been counting calories, but I haven’t had to work at it… I feel full merely by eating lots of veggies and cutting processed grains and sugar out of my diet.
  • I haven’t missed meat… at all! Even at social gatherings.
  • (though in truth, I also haven’t been tested by going out to a restaurant in three weeks)
  • I have missed cheese, but discovered there are good alternatives.
  • No… I haven’t learned to like tofu. For what it’s worth, I fully fit that stereotype of vegetarian critics. Tempeh, seitan and other plant-based meat alternatives are sooooo much better.
  • Eating this way isn’t as expensive as I would have thought, even with some splurges for higher end organic foods, when I factor in the savings of not dining out.

Another pleasant surprises is that group support is much more interesting and less scary than I thouth it would be. There are six other people in my “cohort” and although we are all from different backgrounds and have had different heart-related experiences in terms of specifics, we all share a lot more in common than not. I won’t go into the details of that aspect… it’s supposed to remain private.

One area where I am struggling is in the Stress Management aspect. As much as I exercise already, and as much time as the program is taking up, along with spending time in the kitchen and living life, not to mention having a little thing called a job… well, putting an extra hour of yoga/breathing/relaxation into my daily routine has been a challenge.

It’s not a time management issue… it’s a “believing it’s beneficial/seeing the benefit” issue. But I’m working on it.

It might help if I hadn’t also started spending a significant amount of time reviving this journal. But then again, this is a stress management technique, too.