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A healthy diet does more than drop weight

Published May 22. 2010 09:00AM

Thirty-five years ago, most in the medical field felt there were two ways to overcome heart disease: drugs and surgery.

Doctor Dean Ornish was not like most.

Ornish believed a combination of stress, management, moderate exercise, emotional support, and proper diet could not only stop heart disease but also reverse it. By 1977, he was conducting research to further this belief, and with the help of some like-minded colleagues eventually published articles proving that fact in such high-profile journals as The Lancet, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

His knowledge led Ornish to pen a diet book, or, to quote the subtitle, "a life choice program for losing weight safely while eating abundantly." Eat More, Weigh Less (Harper 1993), became a New York Times bestseller.

Unfortunately, for every 10 books sold one person probably followed the diet for more than a few weeks. Why? Ornish's Life Choice diet calls for dieters to consume no more than 10 percent of their daily total calories from fat.

The only way to insure this is to eat unlimited amounts of beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, grains, and avoid meats including chicken and fish! egg yolks, high-fat and low-fat dairy products, all oils, nuts and seeds, and any commercially sold food product that contains more than two grams of fat per serving. For good measure, Ornish wants his patients to avoid all added sugar too, including natural forms like honey and molasses.

It's sad to say but many with heart disease saw this diet as being so restrictive that they preferred major surgery or a lifetime of prescription drugs.

But Ornish's diet works, even when it's relaxed a bit to make it more palatable. In the past, I used a variation of it with a number of people who were told by their doctors they needed to lose weight and lower bad cholesterol levels quickly or take medication for the rest of their lives.

So why bring up an old-time diet and discuss the success from modifying it years ago? Because new research has done something similar.

Researchers led by Iris Shai, a nutritional epidemiologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel found that not only a less stringent version of the Ornish diet but also a low-carbohydrate diet and the Mediterranean diet all reversed a precursor to heart attack and stroke: the thickening of artery walls.

Even if the diet does not produce a dramatic weight loss.

In a interview published on the Health Scout web site, Iris Shai said that once you adhere to any of these "sensible" diets for a long period of time "even though you experience only a moderate weight loss" you can cause regression of atherosclerosis.

In the study, 140 middle-aged men and women followed one of the three aforementioned diets. While two years of dieting only produced small reductions in weight loss and blood pressure, the subjects experienced, according to the author of the Health Scout article, Ed Edelson, "a significant 5 percent reduction in average carotid artery wall volume and a 1.1 reduction in carotid wall thickness," numbers that clearly show a regression of plaque, the cause of heart attack and stroke.

But the study out of Israel isn't the only recent one to show significant benefits to following sensible diets besides the loss of weight. Researchers at Duke University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center studied 146 people, compared the effectiveness of a weight-loss pill, orlistat which is marketed under the names of Alli and Xenical to low-carb diets, and found the diet did a better job of lowering blood pressure.

In fact, 47 percent of the subjects placed on the low-carb diet were able to either reduce or eliminate their use of blood pressure medication.

Finally, over 57 million Americans have blood-sugar levels high enough to make them likely to develop diabetes. A third article followed up the Diabetes Prevention Program published in 2001 and showed that the development of diabetes can be stopped or dramatically delayed by the same sort of lifestyle changes originally proposed by Ornish to reverse heart disease even with a diet far more moderate than the one originally suggested by Ornish.

Even in a group of people found to be at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, such changes led to a reduced incidence by 34 percent compared to a control group.

Furthermore, over the course of 10 years, the participants who adopted the lifestyle changes and did develop diabetes delayed the disease twice as long as the participants who battled the disease with only drugs.

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