Dean Ornish - Pioneer of Health or Profiteer for Wealth?

September 12, 2010


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.)