Dean Ornish Biography

Physician and author

Born July 16, 1953, in Dallas, TX; son of Edwin (a dentist) and Natalie (a historian) Ornish; married Shirley E. Brown (a nutritional expert and co–director of Ornish's research; divorced, 1994); married Mary Blackwell, June, 1998. Education: Attended Rice University; University of Texas at Austin, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1975; Baylor College of Medicine, M.D., 1980.


Agent —c/o Random House, Inc., 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022. Home —Sausalito, CA. Office —Preventive Medicine Research Institute, 900 Bridgeway, Ste. 2, Sausalito, CA 94965.


Completed internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, early 1980s; assistant clinical professor of medicine and attending physician, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, 1984—; medical staff and attending physician, Presbyterian Hospital, California Pacific Medical Center, San Francisco, 1984—; founder, president, and Bucksbaum Chair in Preventive Medicine of Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, CA, 1984—. Named to the National Institutes of Health Planning Panel to Assess Unconventional Medical Practices, 1992.


Harris County Medical Society, American Medical Students Association (founding member), American Medical Association, American College of Physicians (associate), Massachusetts Medical Society, Suffolk County Medical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York Academy of Sciences, American Heart Association, Society of Behavioral Medicine (fellow), American Heart Association, Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi.


Moody C. Bettis Memorial Award for Excellence in Community Medicine; Franzheim Award, The Franzheim Synergy Trust; has also won photography awards.


San Francisco–area physician Dean Ornish is the author of several best–selling books that tout a low–fat, high–carbohydrate diet and moderate exercise program as the best way to prevent and even reverse cardiac disease. Ornish also runs seminars and "healthy lifestyle" retreats that teach patients how to maintain both a sensible diet and positive outlook on life. Though some in the medical community were initially wary about Ornish's ideas, follow–up studies have demonstrated that his program has indeed been able to unstick some of the plaque build–up in arteries that causes a heart attack, and by 2003 several major health insurers covered the cost of enrollment. "The work has made Ornish one of the few practitioners to successfully test an Eastern style of health care," according to Los Angeles Times columnist Shari Roan, "which focuses on holistic healing, using traditional, Western scientific methods."

The son of a dentist, Ornish was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1953 and grew into an overachieving, academically excelling teen. An early interest in magic was supplanted by a fascination with photography, and Ornish combined the demands of school with his own business as a wedding photographer. He finished high school a National Merit scholar, and in the early 1970s, while a student at Rice University, enjoyed a budding career in rock photojournalism, with some of his images even making it into the pages of Rolling Stone. Yet, during his second year as a biochemistry major Ornish sank into a deep depression. "I felt I couldn't keep up," he recalled of the time in an interview with People writer Ron Arias. "The more I worried, the harder it was to study, and the harder it was to study, the more I worried. I couldn't sleep, and that made me crazy. Finally, I was sitting in organic chemistry and I thought, 'Of course, I'll just kill myself.'"

Fortunately, Ornish was diagnosed with mononucleosis and went back to his parents' home to recuperate before he could carry out his decision. He also began psychotherapy, but it was only when he met the man who had helped his older sister overcome her debilitating migraine headaches that his own outlook vastly improved. Under the watch of his new mentor, Swami Satchidananda, Ornish began yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet, and even spent time at the Swami's Virginia center. The Eastern–influenced tenets, he told Arias, hold "that peace and self–worth are there only if we can quiet the mind and body enough to experience them." With his sense of purpose now renewed, Ornish re–enrolled in college and graduated first in his class at the University of Texas at Austin in 1975.

From there, Ornish went on to medical school at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, and began to see firsthand the long–term effects of an unhealthy Western lifestyle. As an internist in training, he recalled in a Forbes interview with Dyan Machan, "we'd cut people open, we'd bypass the blocked arteries. The patients would get home, eat the same foods, smoke, not manage stress, not exercise and, more often than not, the bypass would just clog up." The existing condition called was called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and was caused by a plaque build–up on the artery walls. The plaque was tied to the level of cholesterol in the blood, which could soar to dangerously high numbers after years of a diet high in animal fat. The coronary disease was also aggravated by smoking, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle. When Ornish was in medical school, new advances in medical technology were enabling heart surgeons to operate on these at–risk patients, who were in danger of fatal cardiac arrest. In the hours–long surgery, less damaged veins were taken from the arms and legs, and then put in place to "bypass" the damaged arteries near the heart.

Ornish began his first studies on the correlation between diet and arteriosclerosis while still in medical school at Baylor in the late 1970s. He signed up cardiac patients who were willing to try a new approach that included a strict diet and reasonable exercise program, and the results were encouraging from the start. Monitoring the plaque build–up in his subjects, he was pleased to find that it often decreased. He carried out further research while completing his internal–medicine residency at the esteemed Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In 1984, Ornish settled in the San Francisco Bay area, having culled $600,000 in private donations to open his Preventive Medicine Research Institute, and began to conduct further test studies.

The number of patients in Ornish's program grew, and the consistently positive results were encouraging. Those who followed the program strictly reported a lessening of angina—the chest pain associated with coronary heart disease—and Ornish found that cholesterol levels had dropped and their plaque build–up decreased by ten percent. By contrast, those in the control groups who did not follow the program showed a five–percent increase in plaque. The first mainstream media outlet to report on Ornish's findings was Psychology Today in 1989, and a year later the American Medical Association (AMA) also published the results of one of his studies.

Ornish decided to expand upon the suggestions in his first book, 1982's Stress, Diet, and Your Heart, into Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease without Drugs or Surgery. The new work was published by Random House in 1990, and sales slowly increased, partly through word–of–mouth, over the next few years. It seemed to incite a minor revolution in health–care philosophy for a generation of aging, previously skeptical Americans, with Natural Health writer Bill Thomson commending Ornish for delivering "a radical, promising message to doctors and patients, which was that the body, on its own, can often heal the deadliest of diseases."

Ornish's food plan countered the typical American diet, which studies show contains about 40 percent fat. Established guidelines to prevent heart disease recommend no more than a 30 percent fat–intake level. As a result, Americans are 20 times more susceptible to arteriosclerosis and other cardiac problems than in other places around the globe—such as Asia—where national diets are far leaner. Ornish counseled Americans to instead follow a diet that was low in fat, abundant in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, and absent of almost any sugar, dairy, or white–flour products. He also advised at least three hours of light to moderate exercise weekly, and one hour a day of stretching, breathing, and meditation. Ornish was also convinced that a group support system, in which participants learned better interpersonal communication skills, was crucial to reducing stress levels. "My program is not about sacrifice," he asserted to Machan in the Forbes article. "It's a matter of replacing something bad for you with something better."

Though the American Heart Association initially endorsed the Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program, it cautioned that his diet was probably too strict for many to follow. Yet those who participated in the program said that it was not as difficult as it appeared, and claimed they enjoyed the marked physical improvement almost immediately. His next book, Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish's Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly, hit bookstores in 1993 and boosted his diet–guru status immensely. He was even invited onto President Bill Clinton's staff of personal physicians; the commander–in–chief and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, also asked Ornish to train the White House kitchen staff. Ornish's program moved from the Bay Area into several other American cities when forward–thinking hospitals began offering it. His research, aided by a National Institutes of Health grant, proved solid enough that several health insurers began to cover the cost of the Heart Disease Reversal Program.

Ornish's career was in high gear by 1994, but the sudden fame caused him to once again question the direction of his life, and he suffered another bout with depression after his one–year–old marriage to a fellow physician ended. In response, he cut back on his public appearances, and returned to therapy. "I've learned that when my work is ego–driven, it makes me lonely," he told Newsweek journalist Geoffrey Cowley for a 1998 cover story. "When I approach it in a spirit of service, I'm much happier." In the seminars he continues to run, Ornish explains why focusing on family and loved ones, and giving back to the community, helps to reduce stress levels and is even a proven life–extending strategy. He expanded on these themes in his next book, Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, which appeared in 1998. "The heart is a metaphor and symbol as well as an anatomical organ," he explained to Thomson in the Natural Health interview. "Interventions are most effective when they address both aspects."

Ornish's Love and Survival book cited a study done of one Pennsylvania community that had been founded in the 1880s by southern Italian immigrants. In Roseto, heart disease was relatively rare until the 1960s—though the diet and lifestyle of its residents were similar to patterns elsewhere where coronary–related deaths were higher. When people began moving away from Roseto, the close–knit sense of community disintegrated, and heart disease rates suddenly skyrocketed. "Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well," Ornish told Newsweek in explaining what had come to be known as the Roseto effect. "I am not aware of any other factor in medicine—not diet, not smoking, not exercise—that has a greater impact." Ornish also suggested that the fact that so many more Americans live in single–person households, sometimes far away from their extended families, only adds to the problem. "There's been a radical shift in our culture in the last 50 years," he told Cathy Perlmutter in a Prevention interview. "We've seen a breakdown of the family. Many people don't have a job, church, synagogue, or neighborhood that they've been a part of for very long."

Ornish's findings have been published in the American Journal of Cardiology and Britain's Lancet. In 1999, his Heart Disease Reversal Program became part of a Medicare pilot project, with some 1,800 senior citizens enrolled. In 2002, he reported the results of his recent study on prostate cancer treatment in men. The disease is the number–two cause of cancer death among American men, and a program Ornish devised—a vegan diet rich in soy and tomato products, exercise, and daily meditation—showed that the blood–marker indicators decreased after three months for prostate–cancer patients. Those who were able to adhere to the diet the most closely found that their numbers dropped nearly ten percent. Some in the oncology community scoffed at Ornish's newest study, noting that in cancer, any decrease less than 50 percent is unimportant, but as Ornish told Newsweek writers David Noonan and Karen Springen, "You don't need it to go down," he says. "You just need it to not go up."

In his hometown of Sausalito, just across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, Ornish still runs the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute. He is also a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California's San Francisco campus, and his empire has expanded to include a line of groceries called Advantage\10. His schedule remains hectic, but he still practices yoga, as he told Roan in the Los Angeles Times article, because it serves to remind him that "what brings me happiness is already inside me if I'd just stop disturbing it." Remarried since 1998, Ornish speaks openly about his battles with depression, and is himself awed by the trajectory of his career. In the end, he told Roan, his story "really has all the elements of a great adventure. There are life and death issues. You have your known allies and your known adversaries, and your unknown allies and unknown adversaries. It's remarkable to me to watch it unfold."

Selected writings

Stress, Diet, and Your Heart, foreword by Alexander Leaf, recipes by Martha Rose Shulman, Holt (New York City), 1982.

Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease without Drugs or Surgery, Random House (New York City), 1990.

Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish's Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly, HarperCollins (New York City), 1993.

(With Janet Fletcher, Jean–Marc Fullsack, and Helen Roe) Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish: 150 Easy, Low–Fat, High–Flavor Recipes, HarperCollins, 1996.

Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, HarperCollins, 1998.



Family Practice News, November 1, 1999, p. 1.

Forbes, May 1, 2000, p. 84.

Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), December 15, 1993, p. 2876.

Lancet, February 20, 1999, p. 683.

Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1996, p. 5.

Natural Health, November–December 1998, p. 112.

Newsweek, March 16, 1998, p. 50, p. 54; April 22, 2002, p. 69.

New York Times, January 13, 2003, p. C12.

People, June 5, 1995, p. 97.

Prevention, August 1998, p. 118.

Psychology Today, January–February 1989, p. 46; May 1989, p. 60.


Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001.

Carol Brennan

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