We had a chance to chat with Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. He's a featured health expert in the new documentary, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which examines the current state of our health care system and provides hopeful solutions based on lifestyle and dietary changes. A big proponent of chronic disease prevention through healthy habits, Dr. Ornish offered up some sound advice and simple changes we can all make to improve our health — chocolate included!
FitSugar: What do you think is the most simple, overlooked thing people can do for their health?
Dr. Ornish: Love more. What you eat, how you respond to stress, how much you exercise, whether or not you smoke, how much love and support you have. But of all those, probably the love and support. Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed are 10 times for likely to die or get sick. You're more likely to smoke and abuse yourself if you're lonely and depressed. It's not enough to just work at a behavioral level and give people information; you have to work at a deeper level.
FS: Everyone has days where they don't want to exercise, how do you motivate yourself on those days?
DO: If I really don't want to, I don't, and then I'll do more the next day. What matters is your overall way of eating and living. So if you don't do something one day, do a little more the next. If I don't have time to meditate for an hour, I'll do it for a minute. It's not all or nothing at any age, and it's really up to you.
FS: People like to stick with their daily habits; how do you get individuals to change their behavior towards healthier choices?
DO: It's about helping people connect the dots between what they do and how they feel, and giving them the tools. Fear is not a sustainable motivator. You can scare people into changing for a few weeks, but not for very long. When you make changes, most people find that they feel so much better so quickly, it reframes the reason for changing from fear of dying to joy of living, and that's what makes it sustainable. Also, to realize that it's not all or nothing. Instead of saying this is good food and this is bad food, and don't ever eat meat, be a vegetarian — I never tell people that. I used to a long time ago and then I realized I was actually not only not helping people, but making it worse. It turns people off because even more than being healthy, people want to be free, so when you tell people what to do they stop listening. If you eat meat five times a day, eat it three times a day or have a meatless Monday and see how you feel. If you don't exercise one day, do a little more the next. Then you start to feel better and then it comes out of your own experience, not because some doctor or some book told you.
To find out Dr. Ornish's surprising favorite indulgence and his take on snacking just read more.
FS: Why is now the right time to tackle this huge health care issue?
DO: I've been doing this for 35 years and I think what's changing is that so many things are reaching a tipping point at the same time. The limitations of high-tech medicine are becoming more apparent, and the power of low-tech, low-cost interventions like diet and lifestyle are becoming clearer. The costs are reaching a tipping point and it's unsustainable in government with $2.7 trillion in healthcare costs annually, three-fourths of which are for chronic diseases that we can largely prevent or reverse with change in diet or lifestyle. Even on the genetic level we found that when you change your lifestyle you can change your genes. It's very empowering for people to know that. Often people think, "I've got bad genes — what can I do?" It turns out you can do a lot much more quickly than people had once thought.
FS: Everyone has a favorite guilty pleasure food, what's yours?
DO: Chocolate. It's a nonguilty pleasure, though, since chocolate is actually good for you in small quantities.
FS: Are you a fan of snacking?
DO: I'm more of a grazer. I think it's actually better for you.
Are you planning to see Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare?