One WH editor put an intense cardio rehab program to the test.
Nearly 40 percent of women age 20 and older already have some form of heart disease, an often stealth assassin with zero symptoms. One doctor says he can reverse the damage—even keep it from invading your bod in the first place. WH health editor Tracy Middleton laid her heart on the line.
I always celebrate my birthday with a slice of chocolate cheesecake. This year (39, gah!), however, I blew out a candle stuck into a wobbly slab of fat-free vegan pudding. At least I had a nice view—of the mountains over San Francisco Bay. And besides, I hadn’t come to California to celebrate.
I’d been invited by the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and its founder, the charismatic internist Dean Ornish, M.D., to test-drive his Reversal Program, an intense weeks-long cardiac rehab now offered at 20 U.S. hospitals and clinics. His tenets—move more, stress less, love more, eat well—sound “duh” simple. His followers are true believers (Bill Clinton called on Ornish after his 2010 heart surgery). And his promise is miraculous, if not controversial: The program can prevent, halt, or even eliminate cardiovascular disease.
I’m not in heart trouble…yet. But my family tree is littered with it. My dad has high cholesterol and has been on blood pressure meds for 50 years. All four grandparents had high blood pressure; three had strokes. Plus, new research shows that women like me (and their M.D.s) underestimate their risk for heart attack, and they’re more likely to die of one than young men. Also, the benefits of the Reversal Program—and its less hard-core cousin, the Spectrum—are appealing: more energy, lower anxiety levels, and healthy weight loss.
So, yeah, I told Ornish, sign me up. I decided to go balls-to-the-wall and follow the Reversal for maximum impact, using my week in California as a kick-starter, then continuing for a month on my own back home in Pennsylvania. Here’s what happened.
Calm, Meet Storm
First up: exercise. Similar to the American Heart Association (AHA), Ornish prescribes around three hours of moderate cardio (think brisk walking or biking) and two 20-minute strength-training workouts per week. I’d already been clocking that much, plus two weekly Pilates classes, so I focused my energy on the Reversal’s next principle—stress management.
In California, we started and ended each day with an hour of meditation and gentle yoga, designed to combat the high blood pressure caused by being chronically frazzled. By midweek, I was so blissed out that when my hotel’s sprinkler system flooded half the building at 6 a.m., I just shrugged it off. That Zen evaporated upon coming home to two small kids and a husband with a case of man-flu. I struggled to find a spare 60 minutes just once a day. (Ornish’s staff suggested I wake an hour earlier. Ha! My 3-year-old’s internal alarm already chimes well before dawn.) I tried meditating before bed, but kept zonking out after about 20 minutes. Discouraged that I couldn’t meet the quota, I redoubled my efforts in the “love and support” realm. In lieu of the hour-long group sessions at Ornish HQ (they were so intense I cried, in a good way), I sat down with my husband. Rather than bitch about whose turn it was to take out the trash (his, it’s always his), I shared how overwhelmed I was feeling. His response: I get it. He told me how taking on my regular tasks (chauffeuring the kids, cooking) when I was away made him appreciate just how much I do. It was the deepest convo we’d had in months. He promised to help out more and we vowed to make supporting each other a priority.
The most daunting change I faced was the Reversal’s diet. Not just because it’s meatless—I’d dabbled in vegetarianism before—but because it’s so low in fat. Really low. Per Ornish, the stuff should account for only 10 percent of a person’s total daily calories. That’s around 18 grams if you’re eating 1,800 cals a day—not much, considering a handful of almonds has 14 grams.
The biggest villains, says Ornish, are saturated and trans fats found in grub like red meat and butter. They can skyrocket bad cholesterol and contribute to plaque that clogs arteries and raises heart attack and stroke risk. But: The Reversal limits even heart-healthy unsaturated fats in foods such as olive oil and seeds. All fats, explains Ornish, contain more calories per gram than protein or carbs—and the more cals you eat, the more likely you are to gain weight, which puts extra strain on your ticker.
Put like that, it makes sense. But not everyone wants a bite of Ornish’s meal plan. Both the AHA and National Institutes of Health recommend people get a more moderate 25 to 35 percent of daily calories from fat. And, in fact, some experts say way-low-fat diets could be dangerous. “People often replace fat with things like sugar, which can increase the body’s production of triglycerides, a type of fat that may raise the risk for coronary artery disease,” says nutritional biochemist Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., lead author of the AHA’s dietary guidelines. Plus, she adds, very restrictive diets are rarely sustainable.
I’d figured out the latter even before I called Lichtenstein. Vegan pudding aside, the food at Chez Ornish was delicious (I’m still salivating over a spinach, egg white, and tempeh “Benedict”). But once I had to fend for myself, I found my oil-less roasted veggies to be dry; my cauliflower tacos begged for a slice of blacklisted avocado. Halfway through the program, my family went to a Chinese restaurant, where I ordered plain steamed tofu and broccoli. I’ve chewed day-old gum with more flavor. I stole a bite of my daughter’s crispy duck and moaned as the grease coated my tongue.
The Beat Goes On
By the end of my experiment, I’d lost two pounds and was feeling less stressed. Yay! But I also had to face facts: Even the promises of a stronger heart and longer life weren’t enough to make me follow the Reversal to the letter. Former AHA president Donna Arnett, Ph.D., assured me I’m not alone. “The program is very intense,” she says. “The lifestyle and dietary changes are individually challenging; taking them all on at the same time is even more challenging—unless you’re exceptionally motivated.”
Of course, some people have to be. For the Reversal patients I met in California, they had to either get with the program or potentially lose their lives. Their stories of eliminating chest pain, avoiding surgery, and weaning off heart meds (Ornish leaves prescription decisions to each patient’s own M.D.) were impressive—and inspiring. Were I in their shoes, and thought that I might not see my girls graduate from college, I think—at least, I hope—my commitment would be concrete.
I confessed as much to Ornish when I called him at the end of the month. He quickly relieved me of the guilt I felt for not totally adhering to the Reversal. For people like me, he says, the Spectrum (think of it like “Reversal lite”) is more appropriate. Even with my family history, my pumper is healthy (my total cholesterol is 163; my triglycerides, 63; my blood pressure just 101/49). “For low-risk people,” says Ornish, “it’s not all or nothing. What matters most is your overall approach.”
For me, that means eating meat only occasionally (but sipping full-fat milk in my coffee and snacking on nuts), sticking to my 20 minutes of bedtime meditation, staying faithful to my exercise routine, and remembering to have real QT with my husband. With any luck, this will set up my heart for life—and I won’t have to celebrate another birthday without cheesecake.
Source: Women’s Health
January 14, 2016
By Tracy Middleton, Illustration by Shutterstock