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Dean Ornish – Pioneer of Health or Profiteer for Wealth?

by Fred Hahn on September 12, 2010

snake-oil

For well over two decades Dean Ornish, M.D., current Senior Medical Editor for the Huffington Post, has been advocating and promoting a low-fat, plant-based diet.

Since his bestselling book Eat More, WEIGH LESS came out in 1993, millions of people have adhered to his dietary advice. To this very day, he continues to promote the idea that eating saturated fats clogs your arteries and is altogether unhealthy, even though there is little (if any) evidence to support his hypothesis.

A recent meta analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving 21 studies on saturated fats concluded that saturated fats are not and never were harmful to our hearts. The researchers also found the opposite: that saturated fats are, in fact, healthy. But even in the face of such overwhelming evidence, Dr. Ornish continues his low-fat crusade.

Rather than graciously accept what is undoubtedly a painful blow to his low-fat empire and admit his multiple decade mistake, he instead continues to preach it and profit from his nutritional misinformation. In doing so, he fosters and perpetuates a myth that could lead to serious health consequences for many.

The reason his dietary recommendations could lead to health consequences?

Anyone who adopts his low-fat, low animal protein recommendations could possibly suffer from inadequate nutrient intake. Proteins and fats from animal sources are proven to be the most nutrient dense foods of all. Yet he counsels that you eat as little of it as possible. In the past he has been challenged to provide evidence that his diet provides all of the necessary macro and micro nutrients a person requires on a daily basis. To my knowledge, he has never accepted the challenge.

To his credit, though, he has and does advocate a nutrient dense diet and advocates against refined sugars and excessive calories. However, as I mentioned above, nutrient density is championed by meats, fish and eggs not vegetables or grains. He is a physician – an expert – who should know this (we would all expect) and, in knowing, heed what science has to say. Since he does not, we are left to assume the worst – that he is not innocently ignorant of the facts but keenly aware of them and thus a peddler of snake oil.

For me, what seals his snake oil peddler-ship, is a recent blog Dr. Ornish penned for the Huffington Post titled: Atkins Diet Increases All-Cause Mortality.

In it Dr. Ornish states:

A major study was just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine from Harvard. In approximately 85,000 women who were followed for 26 years and 45,000 men who were followed for 20 years, researchers found that all-cause mortality rates were increased in both men and women who were eating a low-carbohydrate Atkins diet based on animal protein.

I have to say I am perplexed by his statement.The study in question did not, as Dr. Ornish mistakingly states, find that an Atkins based diet resulted in greater all cause mortality. It could not, as the Atkins diet was not part of this epidemiological survey. The title of the study (survey) is:

Low-Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality

The researchers were not specifically looking at an Atkins diet. While the researchers used the term “low carbohydrate,” the lowest level of carbohydrates for any of the men and women was 35% – a far cry from a true Atkins diet. Some ate as high as 61% from carbohydrates. Why the researchers used the term “low carbohydrate” is anyone’s good guess. Might there have been a confirmation bias at work here? No one who adopts a low carb diet derives between 35% and 61% of their calories from carbohydrates. In my opinion, the study should have been titled Medium and High Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause Mortality. Did Dr. Ornish misread the study? Has Dr. Ornish read The Atkins Diet? One wonders. Meanwhile, scores of people the world over are now sharing with each other false information thanks to Dr. Ornish’s purposeful or careless misinterpretation.

Moreover, Dr. Ornish cleverly calls the paper a “study.” In truth, it is a type of study called an epidemiological survey – a method of looking at data that AT BEST can suggest an association. As any good scientist knows, associations can tell us something — they can be jumping off points for further study. However, associations can NEVER prove cause. We are left to assume that either a) Dr. Ornish knows that most people won’t catch this or call him out on it or b) he is simply not a good scientist.

We, as lay people, rely on physicians, scientists and experts that can accurately read and assess scientific papers for the betterment of our health and well being. At the very least we assume that they can and will without bias. When such experts fail us and fail us in such a careless and (as it appears to me) biased manner, it not only ruins our faith in that individual but in others of his esteemed profession.

We deserve better. We deserves the truth – not one man’s quest for profit at the expense of our health and scientific integrity. Or is it that he is sincere and merely a poor scientist. Either way, he should not be who we rely on or look to for sound nutritional advice.

(Full disclosure: Since Dean Ornish became the senior medical editor of the Huffington Post, each and every one of my blogs for the HP has been rejected even though I kept to their blogging guidelines. In several instances, the Living Section team lied to me as to the reasons for the rejections. One wonders – is the Huffington Post an unbiased online publication or is it not? Is it a forum for independent writers to inform the public on all sides of an issue or are the readers of the HP only getting one-sided, biased information? So, beware…if you look to the Huffington Post for unbiased and honest health information while Dr. Ornish is at the helm, you might want to look somewhere else.)

I've been involved in exercise ever since I became a member of The Charles Atlas Club when I was 10 years old. In 1998, I founded and established Serious Strength on the Upper West Side of NYC. My clients include kids, seniors (and everyone in between), top CEOs, celebrities, bestselling authors, journalists and TV personalities.
my book. my Gym.

in Books,Current Affairs,Health/Fitness,Losing weight/diet,Nutrition,Uncategorized,weight loss/diet · 25 comments

{ 25 comments }

Brandon Schultz, D.C. September 12, 2010 at 2:09 PM

Great post Fred. Keep putting out truthful info, even if barriers pop up. More people need to hear the animal fat/protein model with seasonal veggies as a core of the diet.

In health,
Brandon

Fred Hahn September 12, 2010 at 2:23 PM

Thanks doc – I shall try!

PhilM September 12, 2010 at 5:09 PM

Ornish is a snake oil salesman, right up there with Chopra!

IMO, HuffPo is the internet version of tabloids and the last place for serious reads.

Joe September 12, 2010 at 7:04 PM

Another interesting tidbit about that “study”, it appears they only had the groups of people complete the questionaire about food intake once (at the beginning). So, assuming people accurately reported their dietary habits initially, the “study” further assumes the subjects made no changes in their dietary habits across a 20+ year span of time!

Am I reading that wrong, Fred? If not, I’m completely baffled that it made it through peer-review and was published.

Firebird September 12, 2010 at 7:18 PM

Since I’ve adopted a low carb diet, my cholesterol is around 270, but my BP is 110/60 and my resting pulse is 68. When I was even doing the Zone Diet, my BP was normal (a little higher), and my pulse was about the same. However, my cholesterol was around 170. As it crept up to 200, my PCP at the time was concerned about it. Since I’ve switched PCPs (she is a DO), there has never been any question about my cholesterol. In fact, a friend of mine, Dr. Gregg Ellis tells me that 270 is a pretty good cholesterol level.

Heart disease has never been in question. In fact, I had a stress test years ago by a cardiologist who rated my heart in his top 5 of all patients he tested.

Fred Hahn September 12, 2010 at 7:51 PM

Hi Firebird – nope you are right. I should have included that and more but the post was getting loooooong.

Guy September 12, 2010 at 10:13 PM

Thanks Fred
It is so sad that people who have the respect of the bigger crowd turn their back on their responsabilities. Something that started with good intentions years ago just seems to turn more and more sour. Thanks for being so eloquent in your opinion. It makes me even more confident to trust your slowburn method and apply it with my young daughter! As for myself I’ve moved from low-carb to Paleo and enjoy the change. I’ve even started a blog about it, and I’ve just posted what I call my first Exercise Paleo Style Number#1, I think you would enjoy it. You can see it here: http://guythehealthypaleoguy.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/exercise-paleo-style-number1/
Thanks again for a great post!!! Guy The Healthy Paleo Guy

Jake September 13, 2010 at 7:33 AM

The good news in this post is the knowledge that readers of Huffington Post will die sooner than those who don’t read it.

Sean Preuss September 13, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Great post Fred. 35% carbohydrate obviously seems like a low carb diet to a bunch of ignorant researchers and a physician with a huge blind spot to the truth. According to my own tracking over the last month, carbs made up only 8% of my true LC lifestyle.

mark king September 13, 2010 at 10:16 AM

The fact is, we are up against a trillion dollar industry, the grain, sugars, not to mention every job that is created by a “wrong” type of diet disease. How much money is made off of cancers, diabetes, MS, etc. Those industries will not be going down without a fight, despite the true facts.
Word is slowly getting out. The internet can be used as a tool to do good and every ripple eventually becomes a wave. Great work Fred.

Ramona Denton September 13, 2010 at 12:30 PM

Thanks, Fred. HP obviously has another agenda, one that is not about the discovery and honest discussion of facts and truth.

Chuck P September 13, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Not so fast on completely dismissing the Huffington Post. Didn’t anyone read this article? Fat or Carbs: Which Is Worse?
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-weil-md/healthy-eating_b_629422.html

Firebird September 13, 2010 at 7:16 PM

For the record, Cheerios is pushing its cereal as a means to lowering cholesterol. I have a bowl of oatmeal almost every day…I just like it with cream and xylitol for sweetener. As I mentioned my cholesterol has risen 100 points. If that is the case, why didn’t the oatmeal keep my cholesterol at a lower level?

That would mean the Cheerios marketing campaign is…a…scam.

Fred Hahn September 13, 2010 at 8:42 PM

Firebird – Spot on. And pleeeeze – ditch the oatmeal. It’s bad news every way you look at it.

Nibiru60 September 14, 2010 at 8:21 PM

All I can say is be balanced in all things in one’s Life: physically, mentally and spiritually.

We are omnivores, designed to eat a variety of foods. That has been proven too many times for words. Leaving out protein and dousing yourself with carbs is not balanced. Loading up with fats/proteins and not eating fiber-rich, phyto-nutrient containing plant-based foods is not in balance. And paying attention to the quality of the foods we eat is of the utmost importance. Eating a balanced diet that is loaded with chemicals, hormones and other poisons is counter productive.

Fred Hahn September 14, 2010 at 9:43 PM

“We are omnivores, designed to eat a variety of foods. That has been proven too many times for words. Leaving out protein and dousing yourself with carbs is not balanced. ”

It’s not that it’s not balanced, its that humans do not need carbs.

“Loading up with fats/proteins and not eating fiber-rich, phyto-nutrient containing plant-based foods is not in balance. ”

This statement is unfounded. Fiber is not necessary in the human diet. If you are eating all of the animal, little if any plant food is necessary.

“And paying attention to the quality of the foods we eat is of the utmost importance.”

True!

“Eating a balanced diet that is loaded with chemicals, hormones and other poisons is counter productive.”

Agreed.

Bob Kaplan September 15, 2010 at 8:09 AM

Great post, Fred!

I posted the following comment at HuffPo (awaiting approval – we’ll see how that goes) and thought I would share it here as well:

I created a blog post critiquing the study in question: http://su.pr/A8w8nG (Another study from the Annals raises important questions)

You should also read (before you take what Ornish and Katz wrote at face value):

Denise Minger: http://su.pr/1Y3KJF (Are Low-Carb Meat Eaters in Trouble?):

“Whoever decided to call this study “low carbohydrate” is nuttier than a squirrel turd.”

Tom Naughton: http://su.pr/1KldxF (The ‘Atkins’ Study according to Ornish):

“I’ve got to hand it to you, Dr. Ornish … most anti-fat hysterics manage to write at least a paragraph or two before they start misconstruing the facts. But you told a whopper right there in the headline. The Atkins Diet? Say what?”

Chris Masterjohn: http://su.pr/28FjzY (Lying about Burger intake Prevents Disease…):

“If we pretend [the steps to the scientific method] is a map and pay close attention to the arrows, we can see why the approach of this study is a bit like trying to travel from California to Virginia by going west. You’re going to get pretty wet.”

Fred Hahn: http://su.pr/1IwBLJ (“Medium and High Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause Mortality”)

“We, as lay people, rely on physicians, scientists and experts that can accurately read and assess scientific papers for the betterment of our health and well being. At the very least we assume that they can and will without bias.”

Chuck P September 27, 2010 at 1:51 PM

fred-

i feel like there is a chink in the armor at the huffington post. i wonder if you saw this story? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-stoneman/post_868_b_720398.html

Fred Hahn September 27, 2010 at 4:31 PM

Yes I saw it. He won’t be blogging for the HP for long trust me.

Joe September 28, 2010 at 7:39 PM

“A recent meta analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving 21 studies on saturated fats concluded that saturated fats are not and never were harmful to our hearts. The researchers also found the opposite: that saturated fats are, in fact, healthy. ”

The 21 “studies” were actually epidemiological studies, not RCTs. So their conclusion is not proof of anything (and defintely not a reason *alone* to accept SFA is healthy). The authors themselves mentioned this flaw in their conclusion.

While this meta-analysis does not necesarily prove your point about SFA, the other side of the argument is, “where is the research proving it is not healthy??”

This is actually a better position (and one that you have taken in a previous blog post). Your statement in this article seems odd, in that you knock Ornish for the use of epidemiological study conclusion eight paragraphs later!

I, personally, don’t believe SFA is unhealthy, and I don’t mean to be “nit-picky.” Just saying…

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