Dean Ornish's Spectrum Diet

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 16, 2021

The Promise

Maybe you want to lose 15 pounds -- or 100. Maybe you've had a heart attack and you're overhauling your diet. Or perhaps you've already lost weight and want to keep it off.

Forget all-or-nothing approaches, Dean Ornish, MD, says. It's not about banning foods on his latest diet plan, The Spectrum.

He ranks foods from healthiest ("Group 1") to the most indulgent ("Group 5"). In general, the more you stick with foods toward the Group 1 end of the spectrum, the more benefits you'll reap in terms of weight loss and overall health.

Besides food, Ornish also emphasizes how active you are, how you respond to stress, and how much love and support you have in your life.

What You Can Eat

Nothing is entirely off-limits, but how much you can partake in some foods (including poultry, refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol) depends on your goal.

Ornish's website points out that "for most people, being on a diet -- any diet -- is not sustainable. ... In contrast, the Spectrum approach is all about freedom and choice."

Level of Effort: Moderate

It's up to you how far you want to take the program. You could go for a major overhaul, or a more moderate one, depending upon your goals.

Limitations: Meat lovers and people who eat a lot of highly processed foods may find it hard to adapt to this plan. If you have a condition like heart disease, you'll have more limitations, including how much fat is in your diet.

Cooking and shopping: Ornish encourages choosing fresh, seasonal foods -- organic, when possible. The Spectrum includes many healthy recipes (by chef Art Smith) that are easy to follow.

Packaged food or meals: None.

In-person meetings: No. The exception: People with chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes can enroll in a Dr. Ornish Lifestyle Management Program at various health centers around the U.S.

Exercise: Ornish recommends getting regular, moderate exercise, such as 20-30 minutes of walking every day. He also encourages people to manage their stress by practicing yoga, meditating, and using other relaxation techniques.

Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?

Yes. For example, it's easy to eat a vegetarian, vegan, or low-fat diet on this plan.

The plan isn't gluten-free, so if you're avoiding gluten, you would need to look for gluten-free foods.

What Else You Should Know

Cost: Most of the healthiest foods recommended are not expensive, though some, such as fish, can be costly.

Support: Join Ornish's free "Feel the Love" online community to get tips and recipes and connect with others who are following the plan. Free guided meditation videos are also available online.

What Dr. Brunilda Nazario, MD, Says:

Does It Work?

Yes, Dr. Ornish’s The Spectrum works. It works for anyone, but it targets those with or at risk of heart disease.

This program includes a step-wise approach to nutrition that starts as a very-low fat diet. Historically, this type of low fat,-high carb diet was proposed for people with heart disease.

The diet starts with complex carbs, fruits, and veggies. That makes it high in fiber and low calories. Yet the stages of the diet could be considered restrictive.

Like any diet that changes how you eat, you’ll have to do lots of planning, and you may need nutritional guidance when you're getting started.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

The Spectrum program works especially well for people needing to lower their risk of heart disease. Some experts warn that the low-fat, high-carb approach may increase the triglycerides in your blood, but years of research back the diet and the program. The resulting weight loss will reduce triglycerides, blood sugars, and blood pressure.

The Spectrum includes examples of how to use the program to lose weight, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and help prevent or treat diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.

The Final Word

Any successful weight loss programs needs to address what works for you. Restricted diets require time, planning, and nutritional knowledge. For instance, restricting fat can limit some foods that have calcium, vitamin B, and zinc, and your body needs some fat to absorb certain vitamins.

So the diet in Dr. Ornish’s Spectrum program is ideal for the detailed-oriented and committed person. If you aren't used to cooking and shopping, this program may not be a match for you unless you're ready for a big change.

Show Sources


Ornish, D. The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health, Ballantine Books, 2007.

Silberman, A. American Journal of Health Promotion, March/April 2010.

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