The Spectrum Diet: A Review

A Review:
Ben Brown, MS

NOTE: Video Review at the bottom of the page

The Spectrum Diet by Dean Ornish, M.D.

For more than 32 years, Dean Ornish, MD. has used his along with peer-reviewed clinical research to demonstrate that nutritional intervention in concert with comprehensive lifestyle changes may reduce all-cause mortality, namely coronary heart disease, without the use of invasive drugs or surgery (1).
Dean Ornish is a physician and president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, as well as Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (2). Dr. Ornish received his medical training (internal medicine) from numerous prestigious universities, including Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Throughout the 30+ years of clinical research into the effects of nutrition and lifestyle change on health and longevity, Dr. Ornish has published research in the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Circulation, The New England Journal of Medicine, the American Journal of Cardiology, The Lancet Oncology, and elsewhere. Additionally, Ornish is the author of six best-selling books, including New York Times’ bestsellers Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease; Eat More, Weigh Less; Love & Survival; and his most recent book, The Spectrum (1).

Through his numerous contributions relating to his “lifestyle-driven” approach to improving health and nutrition, namely Coronary Artery Disease, Ornish has been recognized as “one of the most interesting people of 1996” by People magazine; selected as one of the “TIME 100” in integrative medicine; honored as “one of the 125 most extraordinary University of Texas alumni in the past 125 years;” chosen by LIFE magazine as “one of the fifty most influential members of his generation;” and by Forbes magazine as “one of the seven most powerful teachers in the world.” (2).

The Central Theme of the Book
“… the simple choices we make in our lives each day – what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke, how much we exercise, and the quality of our relationships – can make such a powerful difference in our health, our well-being, and our survival…” – Dr. Dean Ornish (3)

Far more than a “eat this, not that” diet book, Dr. Ornish’s Spectrum Diet goes beyond the usual scope of nutritional change to encompass the multifactorial nature of disease and why living a health(ier) lifestyle far exceeds simply controlling calories or macronutrients – yet those still matter. Ornish’s lifestyle guidelines are based in behavioral change, suggesting that it’s not good enough for people to “know” which foods are healthier, but to allow people to be empowered to make both small and big nutrition and lifestyle decisions as part of their own free will. This entitles people to avoid deprivation by making better decisions revolving around their daily habits. These decisions include consuming more “good” foods like certain fats and carbs (omega-3 fats and fruits, veggies and whole grains) and reduce those that are considered “bad” (trans-fats and saturated fat from animal protein) as well as consume anti-inflammatory, quality and nutrient dense foods, herbs, teas and by eating less salt. Ornish provides a “spectrum” of food choices to allow people to have a choice regarding their food choices, broken down into 5 groups (group 1 ideal, group 5 the worst choices).

Of more significance than nutritional guidelines, is the amount of content spent on stress management (mindfulness, meditation and breathing) that are meant to help us rediscover our inner peace rather than looking for it from outside ourselves by getting more, buying more and doing more. In addition to meditation and breathing exercises, specific exercise guidelines are included to allow anyone, of any physical activity level to introduce, improve, and sustain their physical activity levels by following some basic principles.

Basic nutrition guidelines and those meant to prevent and treat disease diverge in the latter part of the book with actual testimonials and specific nutrition and lifestyle guidelines for disease states, like lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, preventing and treating diabetes, cardiovascular disease as well as breast and prostate cancer. Ornish relies heavily on both his own research and peer-reviewed journals support his health claims, which add a strong background to why the reader should care about his guidelines.

The last part of The Spectrum Diet encompasses a recipe, shopping, cooking guide to accompany the nutrition advice found there in. As if that weren’t enough, some not so conventional wisdom is sprinkled in regarding all things practical in the kitchen, like how to separate an egg, effectively chopping a mango, and how to wrap a burrito as a few examples.
None of the guidelines; nutritional or lifestyle related are revolutionary by any means, yet Ornish’s use of published research to continually support his ideas and guidelines makes for more compelling health claims. From anti-aging (telomere lengthening), lifestyle change and coronary artery disease, risk factors associated with heart attacks, love and intimacy and longevity, herbs and cancer prevention, and genetic variability and gene manipulation through diet and lifestyle are just some of the research driven claims found in The Spectrum Diet. As opposed to numerous fad diets driven by pseudoscientific and unsubstantiated health claims, Ornish has the background, experience and results to solidify position regarding his nutrition and lifestyle guidelines.

Having read numerous diet and lifestyle books, I can appreciate Dr. Ornish’s attention to detail on all things relevant to what we could consider health and wellness, or disease prevention. The inclusion of stress management techniques, exercise guidelines as well as shopping, cooking and prepping resources makes for a more easily implementable resource, which, at the end of the day, is needed to help facilitate change. I believe that the combination of both traditional and nontraditional approaches to health and healing makes The Spectrum Diet is valid resource for those looking for change, especially those desperate for change or trying to recover from or reverse disease progression like cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. Yet, the guidelines throughout are realistic and achievable for appropriate for anyone. Of most significance, for me, is the identification my Ornish that it’s the combination of nutrition, exercise, wellness and social support that directly influences our health through the concept of gene-expression, or the idea that are daily habits have the ability to turn-on and –off genes that contribute to health and disease.

Although he could be considered a conventionally trained medical doctor, I think that Dr. Ornish understands the need for “alternative” views on conventional medicine, which clearly he has spent years researching and implementing with a large degree of success. As mentioned previously, nothing in his book is revolutionary and while I do not personally follow a low-fat, plant-based diet, I firmly believe that the majority of people could benefit from many of the principles that this type of lifestyle embrace, like eating more quality, wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, minimizing trans-fats and moderating saturated fats, controlling caloric intake and simply making better food choices. For those of us that are seemingly healthy, lean and in-tune with our bodies, I would be somewhat reticent to recommend this book as far as the lower-fat recommendations yet all other guidelines coincide with my personal nutrition and lifestyle belief system. I actually find the nutrition section of the book to be rather brief and unsubstantiated, at least as it pertains to why animal protein is so frowned upon as we now know saturated fat intake is not a sole (nor necessarily a significant) contributor to coronary heart disease. I agree whole-heartedly with the other nutritional guidelines and would certainly recommend this book as a useful resource for my clients especially the breathing and stress management guidelines.

I have personally recommended this book and other Ornish resources at times for individuals that feel like they need scientific validation for their nutrition decisions, which Ornish clearly embodies. Yet, I personally believe that a nutrition plan only becomes really relevant when it takes into account the individuals needs, wants, and goals. As a generalized resource, The Spectrum Diet, as with most other “diet and lifestyle” books can be a useful guide for those needing change and coming from a relatively unhealthy nutrition and lifestyle background but may not fulfill the needs of someone that may need more individualized guidelines. As health practitioners, we often encounter individuals that need far more than simply a “diet” to subscribe to, which makes it hard for me to recommend any one type of eating plan without looking deeper into other diagnostic tests that shed light into the biochemical individuality of the client and their own distinctive metabolic needs. However, as mentioned previously, what I find most profound is the inclusion of habit changing guidelines revolving around nutrition, exercise, stress-management and social support that makes this such a compelling resource to have clients read simply to help them understand the many implications of their daily choices on their short and long-term health. In fact the sheer idea that everything we do has an effect on our gene expression is profound beyond what most “diet” books can even begin to suggest. This concept alone makes everything Dr. Ornish preaches seem so much more relevant to say nothing of the years of research used to back to back it up.

Dr. Ornish manages to practice medicine without the use of drugs or surgery by helping people identify and reverse the root cause of disease, but done in a way that’s far more compelling than one would realize. Through self-empowerment and acknowledgement, we’re provided with a roadmap focused on prevention but not just culminating in disease prevention, but better quality of life through improved energy, weight loss, love and purpose.

1) “Dean Ornish Biography”. WebMD. n.d. Web. Dec. 23, 2013.

2) “Dean Ornish”. Wikipedia. 11 September 2013. Web. Dec. 23, 2013.
3) Ornish, Dean, MD. 2007. The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health. New York. Ballantyne Books.