by Amanda Bourbonais
The key tenets of Dean and Anne Ornish’s “UnDo It! How Simple Lifestyle Changes can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases” are these: eat well, move more, stress less, love more. This 506-page manual
Eat Well. “A consensus is emerging that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is the healthiest way of eating,” Dean Ornish says at the beginning of the Eat Well section. “It is low in bad carbs and bad fats; high in good carbs and with enough good fats…and very low in animal protein, if any.” Ornish provides several studies praising the benefits of a plant-based diet. “(I)n a study of over 130,000 men and women,…plant protein was associated with lower mortality from all causes,” he says. There are dozens of examples like this, many relating to the benefits of a plant-based diet specifically for many common chronic illnesses. Certainly, the data isn’t lacking.
Scientific studies aside, UnDo It! also addresses how we eat: how mindful we are of our hunger, how fast we eat, and how much we actually enjoy our food. This is where the plan differentiates itself from other diets. The way we eat is just as important as what we eat.
Mindfulness is a thread that is carried throughout the book; again, they don’t want you to just make the change, but be conscious of how you are changing, and how it is affecting your health over time. This is the key to sticking with “lifestyle medicine” over the long term.
Move More. Of course, any health plan is going to incorporate some kind of exercise, but the Ornish plan is refreshingly simple. They split recommended exercise into three categories: “aerobic exercise (e.g., walking), strength training (e.g., with resistance bands or lifting weights), and stretching.”
That’s it. If you’ve ever tried to follow a strict exercise or training schedule, this relaxed approach feels like a breath of fresh air. The idea is that you are practicing consistently rather than practicing hard. Ideally, you’ll challenge yourself as you improve, but if you have a busy schedule, don’t sweat it. They also provide several pages of easy body weight or light resistance exercises, if you want them.
Stress Less. We all know that chronic stress is bad for our bodies and minds, but UnDo It! particularly emphasizes the role it plays in chronic disease. “When it’s chronic, stress can increase inflammation in your brain, which in turn can lead to or exacerbate depression,” they say. But Ornish also recommends changing your reaction to stress: “just as chronic stress can suppress your immune function, love, altruism, and compassion can enhance it.” Our response to daily stress is actually a learned skill, and one that we can adapt.
This brings us to the techniques available to change our stress response—including meditation. But if meditation is too intimidating to start with, try gentle stretching, or breathing techniques. Do what works for you, when it works for you. Only have 5 extra minutes on your lunch break? Two minutes on the bus? Try some breathing exercises. Again, the goal is consistency, not perfection.
Love More. The final section of this book is what truly separates it from just any other diet or health book you’ve read. Here, the authors drive home the essential importance of human connection to improve your health. “[P]eople who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely from virtually all causes,” they emphasize. So how do we remedy this feeling of loneliness so prevalent in our modern society? Ornish recommends establishing or joining a support group, where anyone can talk about anything, and members practice empathetic listening to anyone who chooses to share their thoughts.
I was surprised at how radical this idea seemed to me when I first started reading about their support groups. But the more I thought about it, the more appealing it seemed. Talking to someone outside of your usual circle can be liberating, especially when that person is guaranteed to be open and accepting per the group rules. They also emphasize that the group is about “connection, not correction.” Everyone is just there to listen, and accept you as you are.
Dean and Anne Ornish’s UnDo It! offers a path to sustainable health and lifestyle changes that can actually reverse chronic disease. By far the biggest takeaway I got from this book is that you frame your own experience. You can choose to focus on what you can’t have and can’t do, or you can focus on what you can do, and practice an optimistic and grateful approach to life. And it does require practice. But healthy lifestyle practice makes better health, and better health is worth it.