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A man fills his plate with vegetable and other healthy foods.

Is It Possible to Reverse Heart Disease?

Jan 27, 2020

When people get the flu, they go to their doctor for tools to help them heal and get rid of the illness — but can a similar process reverse chronic conditions like heart disease? Many wonder whether there are steps you can take to get rid of this condition, or if the only option is to manage the disease to prevent its progression. Read on to find out.  

Managing vs. Reversing Heart Disease

Both heart disease management and reversal rely on living a healthy lifestyle. However, reversal focuses on reducing the size of the plaque build-ups in the arteries through significant lifestyle changes. On the other hand, management is the prevention of plaque accumulation and requires less extreme changes.

Is Heart Disease Reversible?

A landmark study conducted in 1990 followed 48 patients with heart disease for a year and found that the lesions in the hearts of people who followed a specific lifestyle regimen shrank (even without medication or surgery), while the lesions in the hearts of people in the control group grew. This program, the Ornish diet, required the following lifestyle updates:

  • Following a low-fat, vegetarian diet. This meal plan focuses on eating whole foods, mainly plants. The only animal products that participants can have are egg whites and the occasional serving of nonfat dairy. It also requires the number of calories from fat to be 10% or fewer of your daily caloric total. 
  • Getting frequent exercise. This regimen encourages participants to get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. It recommends aerobic activities, which work out your heart and lungs, and resistance training.
  • Managing stress. This program focuses on relieving stress through meditation, yoga, and other healthy behaviors.
  • Experiencing meaningful human interaction. Research has shown that interacting with people can improve general, as well as cardiovascular, health for older adults. Loved ones can also provide support when things get tough and help keep you accountable when making healthy decisions. 

The Ornish diet has since become the top-ranked diet for heart health by U.S. News & World Report.

Things to Consider Before Switching to the Ornish Diet 

As with any major dietary changes, possible nutrient deficiencies are important to think about. Removing animal products from your diet may also take away sources of vitamin B12, iron, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids, among other nutrients. This means you’d have to make sure you’re getting these vitamins and minerals from other foods or in a supplement. Working with a dietitian and your healthcare providers can help ensure that your diet is complete and safe to practice alongside your other medical treatments. 

The Ornish diet also offers a spectrum approach for people who are looking to prevent heart disease instead of reverse it. This plan involves five categories of food, with foods in the first section being the most nutritious and foods in the last being the least. It encourages people to eat the majority of foods from the healthier categories but allows people to indulge in foods from the others occasionally. 

With these considerations in mind, speak with your Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group primary care physician or cardiologist to determine if it’s the right plan for you. Always consult a medical professional before making any lifestyle changes, especially if you have a chronic condition.

Sources: 
Medpage Today | Data Support that Diet Can Reverse Heart Disease
NCBI | A way to reverse CAD?
U.S. News & World Report | What is Ornish Diet?
Healthline | The Ornish Diet: Can It Improve Health and Aid Weight Loss?
Everyday Health | The Ornish Diet
NCBI | Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial.
NIH | Research Suggests a Positive Correlation between Social Interaction and Health
Everyday Health | The Spectrum Diet