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To listen to all of our archived shows please subscribe to our iTunes podcast.View Our Expert Profile for Dean Ornish
Dean Ornish, M.D., is a leader in the field of living healthier. He is the founder, president and director of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, CA, and is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco. Ornish is the author of five best-selling books, including his recent one The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health. His research has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Circulation, The New England Journal of Medicine and The American Journal of Cardiology. Ornish’s healthier living message has also been featured in cover stories in Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report. Here, he shares his viewpoint on what it means to live healthier.
What is the main message that you would like people to get from The Spectrum?
The Spectrum is based on the idea that once you start to [tell yourself] you can’t have something, then immediately you want that. What I have done is categorize foods from the most healthful to the least healthful. There are no good and bad foods. Some foods are clearly better for you than others and [my book] suggests you find your place on the spectrum. What matters most is your overall way of eating and living. So, if you indulge yourself one day, it doesn’t mean you cheated on your diet or you were a bad person because you had bad food. Just eat healthier the next [day].
There are three components of the spectrum in your book—nutrition, exercise and stress. Is one more important than the other?
No. They are all important. The spectrum approach really doesn’t just focus on behaviors, [and it] doesn’t just give information. It works on a deeper level and when we can give you alternative ways, for example, of managing stress. Then, you can accomplish even more. You can find ways of nourishing and nurturing yourself that are life enhancing, rather than ones that are self-destructive.
There is so much confusing information out there about good foods and bad foods. Are there three that you would add to a diet and three that you would ask people to decrease?
When we call foods good or bad, I think that is part of our problem. It is a very small step to saying “ I hate bad foods—I am a bad person.” Some foods are clearly more healthful for you than others and so it is not just what you exclude from your diet that is harmful but also what you include that is beneficial. There are at least 100,000 substances that are protective. [They] help protect you against the risk of cancer and heart disease and even slow the aging process. Blueberries, for example, can really make you smarter because of the [antioxidants] that are in there. Turmeric, which you find in curries, is a powerful anti-inflammatory spice that may help prevent Alzheimer’s. Chocolate is good for you in small quantities. It has flavonols that can actually dilate your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure and improve your blood flow.
Your motivator is clearly fun and pleasure and there are so many people who don’t associate those two things with exercise. How do you create that as a new link for people?
Well first of all, [do] what you enjoy. For me, running was always a punishment when I was growing up in Texas. You know, go take a lap. But I love things that involve rackets, [like] tennis, ping-pong or squash. I love walking. I take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Little things that you can incorporate into your daily life can make a huge difference, because it turns out that in terms of reducing the risk of premature illness or death, a little goes a long way. Just walking 20 or 30 minutes a day and not even all at once or all that fast can reduce your risk of premature death by 50%. It is also useful to add some strength training to it as well, because that can help you burn fat faster as well as increase your bone strength.
What are your thoughts on people who have either a genetic disposition to disease or might think that they do?
Genetics do affect our risk of disease, but the good news is that a predisposition is not a death sentence. If you are genetically predisposed to something you might want to move more toward the healthier end of the spectrum than someone else might. Also, we have found that you can actually change how your genes are expressed when you spend more time on the healthy end of the nutrition- and stress-management-and-exercise spectrum. You can actually turn on the genes that prevent disease and turn off the ones that promote illness.
Are you more on the small [change side] or the bigger in terms of actually creating a healthier life style?
I am for the approach that works the best for an individual. And, one size doesn’t fit all. Some people say it’s easier to make small gradual changes. Get a pedometer and walk 1,000 or 3,000 steps more a day, eat one less cookie a day and over time those changes do add up. The advantage of that is that they aren’t that hard to do. The disadvantage is that it takes longer to see the benefits.
The other approach also works. You feel so much better so quickly that for many people these become choices worth making not only to live longer but to live better. When you make big changes, you see big benefits very quickly. Even more than being healthy, people want to feel free and in control. It is all about preserving that sense of empowering people with information that they can use to make informed and intelligent choices.
What is the belief you go to in times of change?
I try to go back to that inner joy, that inner peace, that inner wisdom. During times of change, it’s very easy to allow that to get disrupted.
The best thing about change is…
… the opportunity to transform [myself].
What is the best change that you have ever made?
Marrying my wife Anne and having my son Lucas. Totally changed my life in ways that nothing else even comes close to.
For more information on Dr. Dean Ornish, visit www.pmri.org or www.ornishspectrum.com.
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