3 low-fat diet plans and foods to decrease health risks

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Low Fat Diet and Health

Two low-fat diet and exercise programs, which have substantial data published in peer-reviewed journals documenting their benefits in decreasing heart-health risks, are the Ornish Program and the Pritikin Program.

The Ornish Program has been proven to regress heart disease.

The Pritikin Program has been proven in more than 100 studies to significantly reduce virtually every modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including LDL bad cholesterol, trigylcerides, blood glucose, insulin, hypertension, inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, and excess weight/obesity.

So strong are the data affirming the heart-healthy benefits of the Pritikin and Ornish Programs that Medicare is now covering these programs for people with a history of cardiovascular disease.

Both programs recommend an eating plan that is about 10 to 15% of calories from fat. Both programs also emphasize hearty consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes like beans.

This is a far cry from the “low fat” diets of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which, though low in fat, were anything but healthy. Often, the “low-fat” and “fat-free” products that people were seduced by the food industry into buying (remember “fat-free” cookies?) were essentially junk food themselves – very high in sugar and salt and refined white flours.

Low-fat plans like Pritikin, by contrast, focus on real food – whole, minimally processed, naturally fiber-rich foods that, as author Michael Pollen wrote in his superb book In Defense of Food, “are foods our great grandmothers would have recognized as food.”

One major difference between Pritikin and Ornish is that the Ornish Program is completely vegetarian. Pritikin allows up to four ounces of animal protein daily, such as omega-3-rich fatty fish, skinless white poultry, and lean meat like bison.

Another key difference is Pritikin’s emphasis on sodium limits – no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, which has also been recently established as optimal sodium intake by leading health organizations like the Center of Disease Control and the American Heart Association.


Another low-fat diet proven particularly beneficial for blood pressure control is the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

Several studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have found that the DASH diet lowers blood pressure as well as or better than medications. DASH, similar to the Pritikin Program, promotes menus that are high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans; low in fats, salt, cholesterol, red meats, and sweets; and moderate in fish, poultry, nuts, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.

The DASH Diet for Vegetarians and Vegans
Why the DASH Diet Won Best Overall Diet
DASH Diet Reduces Chances of Heart Disease

The NIH researchers found that eight weeks of DASH eating resulted in reductions in blood pressure in all groups of men and women studied. Even those with normal blood pressure (systolic pressure less than 120) had a small drop.

The biggest reductions in blood pressure were observed in the individuals who were hypertensive (systolic pressure greater than 140), emphasizing the fact that diet is a major factor in determining blood pressure in most hypertensive patients.

In another part of the DASH studies, three groups of people followed the DASH, diet but with varying levels of sodium intake (3,300, 2,400, and 1,500 mg a day). The researchers found that the biggest drops in blood pressure occurred in the group on the 1,500 mg-of-sodium-a-day diet.*

The Pritikin Program has also been found to have substantial success with blood pressure control. Seven studies have been published demonstrating that the Pritikin Program of eating, exercise, and lifestyle-change had quick and profound blood-pressure-lowering benefits for individuals with hypertension.

Researchers combined the data from all seven studies, which totaled 1,117 people with hypertension who had come to the Pritikin Longevity Center for an average of three weeks. In this large population, blood pressure was reduced to normal or near normal levels. Moreover, a little more than half of the 598 patients initially taking blood pressure medications were able to stop taking their drugs.**

Written by James Barnard, PhD, UCLA Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology

* New England Journal of Medicine, 2001; 344: 3.
** Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005; 98: 3.