For as long as Liz U. can remember, she's been waiting to have a heart attack.
"Talking about heart trouble was just as much a part of my life as eating breakfast," she explains. The 59-year-old Illinois native has a long family history of cardiovascular problems: Both of her parents and three of her grandparents passed away from heart disease, so Liz had resigned to meeting the same fate. "I just accepted I had bad genes and I was going to be a mess," she says.
Overweight since middle school — "I only wanted Danishes and chocolate milk as a kid" — Liz considered food her emotional crutch. She reached 324 pounds at one point, with pizza, ice cream, and chocolate as her diet staples, along with fried fast food.
"I'll put it this way — I couldn't pump gas without buying a candy bar or two," she admits. "I also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and drank, on average, two liters of diet soda each day. Because it was 'diet,' I believed I was doing something good."
But reality struck in 2003 when, at the age of 47, she collapsed while working at her 80-hour-per-week job as a restaurant manager.
"I want people to know that my symptoms weren't typical — my jaw didn't hurt, my arm didn't hurt, my chest didn't hurt," she says. "I just didn't feel good. The next thing I knew, I hit the floor."
The heart attack Liz had been expecting had finally arrived. She received her first stent — a small mesh tube that's implanted in an artery to restore proper blood flow — and thought to herself, "It's the beginning of the end."
The End of Poor Heart Health
Four more heart attacks and seven stents later, Liz found herself yet again at the Beacon Memorial Hospital of South Bend in May 2015. That's when she first heard about a 72-hour program that was dedicated to reversing heart disease.
"I never married or had children because dying young became a part of who I was," she says tearfully. "But then I saw my sister's face and I knew I couldn't put her through any more hurt."
Liz's sister had recently also lost her husband to heart disease. "Something inside me no longer wanted to die and I was ecstatic that this program accepted me."
The Ornish Reversal Program, created by cardiologist, researcher, and White House consultant Dean Ornish, MD, teaches patients how to embrace a plant-based diet, increase their physical activity, manage stress through meditation and restorative yoga, and create personal connections through group support.
Based on more than three decades of research showing that the progression of coronary artery disease and other chronic conditions can be treated and reversed through lifestyle changes, the Ornish program is now available in 15 states and has been validated by Medicare. The program, which Liz continues to follow, includes a low-fat, whole foods nutrition plan, limiting sugars and other simple carbohydrates and without any concentrated or processed protein.
We're all worth 72 hours.
"This is no part of this program that is more important," boasts Liz, who today lives as a vegan and has already lost 40 pounds and 17 inches around her waist. She's (deservedly) proud: "I believe I'll weigh 175 pounds by my sixtieth birthday in July!"
The former couch potato and smoker spends her days shopping at health food stores, reading labels, practicing yoga, walking around town, and volunteering for the local animal control. Greasy cheeseburgers have been replaced with meatless products made from tofu crumbles and ice cream has become a Greek yogurt with oatmeal, flaxseed, and pumpkin seeds.
"Now I concentrate on eating food to live — it's an amazing difference," she says.
The Heart of The Matter: It's a Lifestyle, Not a Diet
"I have the greatest respect for Dr. Ornish and I think he's done a huge amount to make people aware on how they can become healthy," says Dennis A. Goodman, MD, cardiologist, clinical associate professor in the department of medicine, and director of integrative medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. "I love the fact that he has a program and that he doesn't try to say 'this is just about your diet.'"
In Dr. Goodman's perfect world, he would add another category to the plan: sleep. "I'm finding out that huge a number of people have sleep apnea and don't even know it," he says. "Many people are not sleeping well, which we know is a risk factor for heart disease. And then if this person has sleep apnea, there's a significant increased risk of high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (AFIb), heart attack, and stroke because oxygen levels can get so low."
In terms of the Ornish eating plan, however, Goodman doesn't feel the one-size-fits-all version is effective for everyone and instead emphasizes the importance of seeking out a reliable nutritionist.
"I send my patients to a nutritionist on staff because I want her to individualize a program to their specific needs," he explains.
For example, someone who's been diagnosed with an eating disorder or who is dealing with emotional eating issues would require more than just a proper diet to follow.
"They need a person who is going to ask, "What is your story? Where have you been? What have you done? What are your goals?'" Goodman says. "I think personalizing the diet is a very key component."
Fat: Friend or Foe?
Goodman also questions the low-fat food suggestions made on the Ornish plan, which is a somewhat controversial topic. "The big authorities in health are saying we made a big mistake, and I'm on the side of having realized that we were, unfortunately, led astray."
He explains that a problem with the low-fat lifestyle is that people tend to substitute sugar and carbs for the lack of fat "and end-up with a high caloric diet from food that's not good for you." He's also in favor of a diet that includes meat — "Yes, it can raise your LDL 'bad' cholesterol, but it can also raise your HDL 'good' cholesterol, so it often offsets it" — and fish. "You want to eat the fish that don't have the mercury problem, like sardines and wild-caught salmon," he says.
And then there's soy. Maria Bella, MS, RD, who works with Goodman, recommends avoiding all concentrated and processed forms of this protein, such as soy protein powders, bars, pills, sausages and patties.
"I am not against natural sources of soy in moderation, but always organic," she says. "To be safe, I usually recommend fermented forms of soy product such as tempeh instead of tofu as they have been shown not to have the hormonal connection." (Soybeans contain isoflavones, which can have similar effects of estrogen.)
"It's just not theoretical — when you increase estrogen in the body, you increase your risk of breast cancer," Goodman adds. "So you could have a patient that has an issue with breast cancer and you're not going to put them on soy. Again, this comes back to my point that a diet should be personalized."
The Bottom Line
All that said, Goodman applauds both Dr. Ornish and Liz. "There's no question that this is a great success story," he says. "And I'm on the same page as Dr. Ornish, especially that being healthy is not just about nutrition."
As for Liz, she has a number of goals she plans to achieve, which include walking a 5k and watching her nephew graduate from college.
"My biggest goal is getting other people to understand that they need to do this," she says. "We're all worth 72 hours. I want them to love themselves enough to try."