Five Questions for Anne and Dean Ornish

By Julissa James

UnDo It! co-authors Anne and Dean Ornish attempt to help people reverse chronic disease. (Lucas and Jasmine Ornish)

They characterize their partnership as respectively yin and yang. The Ornishes’ most recent collaboration, UnDo It!, is a co-penned guide to reversing chronic disease by way of major lifestyle shifts. It’s a merging of their unique perspectives: Anne’s practical expertise is informed by her self-described right brain — she’s a seasoned yoga and meditation teacher driven primarily by her spirituality. Meanwhile, Dean’s encyclopedia-like scientific knowledge comes from 40 years in clinical research. It’s a subject he’s written best-selling books and given multiple TED talks about, and taught to students at UC San Francisco. In addition, the couple runs Sausalito’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Dean as its founder and president and Anne as vice president of program development. In UnDo It!, the pair prescribe five pillars of preventive medicine, including eat well, move more, stress less and love more. (And, yes, they follow their own advice.) Fun fact: Beyoncé herself has called the book a “life saver.” Hey, if it’s good enough for Queen Bey, it’s good enough for us!

Your “eat well” chapter recommends a plant-based diet. Why? Dean: There are many reasons to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet, which is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products. Animal protein has been shown to increase the risk of premature death from all causes by 75 percent and from diabetes and cancer by 400 to 500 percent. … You’re reducing global warming, you’re freeing up resources to feed the hungry, you’re reducing your own health risk. Anne: From my perspective, it’s not only what we eat but how we eat. What drives this way of eating is not fear, but pleasure. You can set yourself up for success by having healthy food that’s grab and go…. [Also], knowing what your hunger cycles are so you don’t get to a place where you’re “hangry.”

How can San Franciscans maximize movement when many of us sit in front of desks all day? Dean: Awareness is the first step to healing. When you start to use exercise to live longer and also feel better, then you start to find time. There’s a lot of things you can do that don’t take much time and you can incorporate into your daily life. Something like [talking on] your cell-phone and walking around the office or taking the stairs — the latest study shows that 10 short bursts of exercise are more beneficial than longer, more intensive exercise. Anne: Join forces with someone you like to take a walk. Do whatever activity you enjoy. … It holds you accountable to do things with people other than yourself. We’ll do things for others that we wouldn’t do for ourselves.

In a culture that doesn’t reward downtime, how can people prioritize relaxation? Anne: Stress is an epidemic — no doubt. We can’t always change the stressors in our life, but what’s really cool, and very empowering, is that we can change how we react or respond to those stressors. We can control our response by making regular time where we create a personal sanctuary for ourselves — where we get still and where we get quiet so that we can have more clarity to drop that personal anchor.What’s most beneficial for me is bookends — the beginning and end of the day — to set that anchor in place and create a buffer around my whole being so that as I go through the day, I have enough self-awareness to know what my pitfalls are, what my strategies are. These are all ways to form active mindfulness.

Many of us don’t make the connection between our emotions and health, but you two do. Why is “loving more” important for physical longevity?Dean: Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed are 10 times more likely to [get sick and die prematurely] than those who had a strong sense of love and community. Awareness is always the first step in healing, and when people realize that the time you spend with your friends and family is not a luxury you do after the important stuff, but it is the important stuff, it will allow you to become more empowered and healthy. … Anything that brings us together is healing, and anything that isolates us [is not]. Anne: “Love more” is not in any way limited to romantic love. It has to start with self-love.

What do your daily routines look like? Dean: We have a lot of fun. Anne: Beginning the day and ending the day with meditation and gentle stretching. And then really having fun making breakfast as a family. … Dean is really good about working out. I like to take a long walk or a hike. I have a handful of friends and family that I connect with every day. We make time to connect by phone, FaceTime, what have you, much more so than any social media. To be able to hear how they’re feeling in real time is essential. More days a week than not, Dean and I try to take an hour of personal time, just so we as a couple can connect.

In UnDo It!, Anne and Dean attempt to make their recommendations as doable as possible. The chapter on eating well is chock-full of specific items to stock in your freezer, fridge and pantry for a smooth transition into veggie-dom. For the fridge: fresh produce, milk alternatives, cheese alternatives, tofu and dressings. For the freezer: frozen fruits, frozen veggies and frozen meat alternatives. For the pantry: breads, pastas and polentas galore, among canned goods and other nonperishables.A panoply of plant-based recipes is also included.

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