The Health Diaries

How One Couple Fights Disease With Plant-Based Diets and Eating With Ecstasy

Dean and Anne Ornish say diet and exercise can go a long way in preventing and reversing many chronic illnesses

There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.

Nearly six in 10 Americans live with chronic disease. Lifestyle medicine advocates Dean Ornish, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and his wife Anne, vice president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, want to change those statistics. They’ve done research to show that many chronic diseases — including heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, and more — can be reversed through changes to diet and lifestyle.

The program they’ve created, called Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, is being studied at Preventive Medicine Research Institute. In their latest book, Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases, the Ornishes suggest adopting a four-pillar philosophy to ward off chronic disease that includes eating well, moving more, stressing less, and loving more.

Dean and Anne Ornish shared their routines for staying healthy with Medium.

We wake up at 6 a.m. It is the best time to meditate. The house is quiet and peaceful, and we get to watch the sunrise. From 6 to 7 a.m., we work to quiet our minds and ask ourselves to focus on what we may not be paying attention to in our lives that we need to be. Meditating allows us to experience that inner sense of peace, joy, and well-being. So much of our culture teaches us that we can get health, happiness, and well-being from outside ourselves, but we believe it starts within.

After that, the rest of the family is up for breakfast. We have an 18-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter. We usually make McCann’s oatmeal with half a pint of blueberries on it and a bit of low-fat and low-sugar soy milk. We always have lots of fresh fruit.

Dean grew up in Texas and ate meat several times a day. Burgers, chili, chalupas. He adopted a plant-based diet at 19 and found he felt so much better. Today, our meals are usually full of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and soy products. We like to eat a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a smaller dinner.

We like to eat dinner early to get in some intermittent fasting. We get in a 12-to-13-hour fast that we find helps us sleep better and lets our bodies detoxify.

Anne does guided meditation that focuses on eating with ecstasy. If you have a more sensual experience with food, you will eat less of it. It’s easy to eat without being mindful about it.

An average workday right now is immersed in lots of research. We’re currently conducting the first randomized trial to determine if the progression of early stage Alzheimer’s disease can be reversed by making these lifestyle changes. There are no good drugs for treating or preventing Alzheimer’s. Three days a week, we’re working with Alzheimer’s patients for four hours a day doing a lifestyle intervention based on our principles. Dean has a personal interest in this research, as his mother passed away from it.

We both enjoy exercise but do different styles. Dean works with a trainer twice a week. Anne loves yoga. We also have a dog, which makes it more fun to get out and walk.

Work-life balance can be hard to achieve. For us, the biggest challenge is to carve out time for ourselves—to have “date” time, to be able to talk and be together, to be with our family and be there for them in all the ways they need.

Music is our shared language with our kids. We’ll cook dinner together with our kids and then head to our music room. We try to center our evenings around family time. Our music room is full of instruments and Dean’s large vinyl collection. He used to be in a garage band. Our son is an extraordinary musician who plays keyboards, drums, and guitar, and our daughter sings beautifully. Quincy Jones is their godfather and has been mentoring our son. We all love music.

We definitely have a ritual around going to bed at night. We give ourselves 30 minutes to enjoy and share with each other what we’re grateful for each day. The rule is it has to be something you’re grateful for from that day. Dean used to pride himself on not needing as much sleep, but the brain detoxifies itself and healing occurs during sleep, so it’s become a priority to get enough. We usually put our daughter to bed at 8:30 p.m., and we’ll usually stay up till 11 p.m. or so.

We believe that awareness is the first step in healing. Our unique contribution has been to use the latest high-tech, state-of-the-art technology to prove the power of low-cost, low-tech, simple lifestyle changes through eating well, moving more, stressing less, and loving more. Most people feel so much better so quickly that it reframes the reason for changing their lifestyle from fear of dying to joy of living.