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Expert Q&A: Heart-Healthy Eating

An interview with Dean Ornish, MD.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dean Ornish, MD,  has already shown us what it's possible to do with a healthy lifestyle. Now he's showing us how to do it.

Ornish's plant-based diet, exercise, and lifestyle plan can reverse heart disease. But the strict Ornish plan only shows what's possible, not what might be right for you. In his new book, The Spectrum, Ornish puts the emphasis on finding your own personal place in a spectrum of healthy choices. For Ornish it's not all about diet and exercise. He gives equal weight to stress reduction via mindfulness and meditation.


So how do you go about making the changes needed to improve your overall heart health? WebMD turned to Ornish for some answers.

What is mindfulness? Why do you say mindfulness is part of healthy eating?

Mindfulness is just the practice of paying attention to something. Meditation helps to promote mindfulness, because when you pay attention to something you do it better.

And on the sensual level, when you pay more attention to something, whether it is food, music, sex, art, or massage, you enjoy it more fully and you don't need as much of it to get an even greater amount of pleasure.

Pay attention to how things affect you. Then your choices come out of your own experience. It's not just because some book-writing doctor told you to change. You change because you connect the dots between what you do and how you feel.

When you exercise, eat healthier, and meditate, many changes occur -- quickly. You think more clearly. You have more energy and you need less sleep. Your skin doesn't wrinkle as much. Your heart gets more blood, so you have more stamina. And your sexual organs get more blood, so you have more sexual energy.

These changes are sustainable because they come from your own experience.

Which is more important to avoid, cholesterol or saturated fats?

Saturated fat will raise your blood cholesterol levels about twice as much as the same amount of dietary cholesterol will. But both are important. You only find cholesterol in animal products. You often find products that say they are cholesterol free, but may contain palm oil, which is high in unsaturated fat. So it is important to take note of both.

Are unsaturated fats beneficial?

I don't know that unsaturated fats are necessarily good. That is one of the few differences I have with people like Walt Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health. They say it does not matter how much fat you eat as long as it is unsaturated -- but it does.

First of all, fat is very dense in calories, and it doesn't matter whether it is unsaturated, monounsaturated, or saturated. Fat has 9 calories per gram, protein and carbohydrates have only 4 calories per gram, so when you eat less fat you are going to consume fewer calories without having to eat less food.

And studies show that total fat is related to diseases, such as breast cancer, and not just to saturated fat. So it is important to be mindful of both.

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