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How a Renowned Program in Lewes is Reversing Heart Disease

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Rehoboth Beach musician Lorraine Messitt had never been a big meat eater, and she figured going to the beach and jumping in the waves in the summer was pretty good exercise. However, her cholesterol numbers and hip measurements kept increasing. Then she developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. 

“I needed new direction,” says Messitt, 61, who joined the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program at Beebe Healthcare in spring 2016. “Something told me that participating in the program would be the ‘special sauce’ I needed to be successful.”

“Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States. Heart and vascular disease are all too common in Delaware,” according to Beebe’s Ornish website. Dr. Dean Ornish’s nationally known program for reversing heart disease is the first program scientifically proven to reverse heart disease through significant changes in lifestyle. Beebe Healthcare offers the program at its health campus just outside of Lewes.  

For Messitt, it was like starting a whole new life.

Ornish focuses on four areas of a person’s life: fitness, stress management, nutrition and support. Each part is as important as any other, says Messitt, who lost 10 pounds, dropped a dress size and lowered her cholesterol by 30 points in the nine-week program.

The program is intense, with two four-hour classes a week, and follow-up expected at home as well. Participants are carefully screened to make sure they are prepared for the commitment they are signing up to make, says Abby Tschoepe, Ornish program manager at Beebe. The program goal is to be lifestyle changing, not a quick fix. 

The first hour of every class is about exercise. In the gym, each participant is given a customized exercise program to follow, including tips for easy daily additions of exercise, like taking the steps instead of the elevator and parking the car far from the door to walk more. For some of the participants who haven’t exercised in a long time, the gym portion of the program can be daunting at first, says Messitt. 

“The first day there’s a lot of machines and a lot of chaos, but it’s not so bad,” she says. “But the exercises and goals are realistic for each person, and an exercise physiologist is there the entire time.”

The second hour is lunch. There is no brown bagging here. These lunches are balanced Ornish vegan meals prepared by the program’s Ornish chef, Miguel Cuevas. The Lewes program is one of two programs in the United States that has its own chef. For that reason, people from around the country have called to participate in Lewes specifically, says Tschoepe. Cuevas provides recipes and introduces participants to meals they can make at home. 

Messitt says she was surprised at how easy it was for her to make the switch. She gave up caffeine and learned how to make healthy substitutions for foods that are taboo with Ornish, like any animal fat. She says she stocks up on tofu burgers when she sees them at the store and has organic produce delivered to her house every week. Plus, the program allows for 1 ounce of dark chocolate a day.

The third hour is a group session where participants meet with a therapist to talk about their successes and difficulties. “It’s where they really get to know each other and build a support network for when they leave the program,” says Tschoepe. Her office is next door to the therapy room, and while she cannot hear what the group members are saying, she does hear a difference in their dynamic over the course of the nine weeks. 

“The first week is quiet,” she says. “By the third week there are some rumblings. By the eighth week there is such laughter. You have to truly hear them out there.”

Messitt says the group sessions are very important. Her group talked about everything from how to set up the program at home to how to “stay on the wagon” on New Year’s Eve. They also shared personal stories, their hopes and fears. “It’s scary to have something wrong with your heart,” says Messitt. 

The final hour is devoted to yoga and stress management. Participants learn to use guided imagery like Olympic athletes, chair yoga and meditation. Messitt says she uses those lessons constantly and turned her guest room into a yoga/meditation room.

Messitt’s life was so changed by the program that she now volunteers to help new groups through the process. “I try to make it fun,” she says. She is known for breaking into song and dancing as she takes people through their exercises.

The program seems to pay off. Nationally, 85 percent of the graduates are still following the program a year later. Of those, 82 percent showed improvement in their heart disease and 74 percent of them became angina (chest pain) free.

In Lewes, 35 participants have completed the program with an average weight loss of nearly 11 pounds each and an 11 percent reduction in bad cholesterol. Some participants were able to stop taking blood pressure or diabetes medicines through the program, says Tschoepe.

The only issue with the program is that it takes a heart incident—like Messitt’s a-fib, or a heart attack—for a participant to qualify. Beebe officials are considering creating a wellness program based on the Ornish lifestyle that could be open to more people, but they don’t have a date for such a program to start just yet. 

“I know I’m healthier physically, and I think, psychologically,” says Messitt. “I tell everyone they’ll love it.”


RECIPE: Ornish Kitchen Chocolate Pudding

Lorraine Messitt (right) is now a volunteer with the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program. She enjoys helping
new participants through the process.//Photo by Maria DeForrest

Serves: 6 | Serving size: 1/3 cup | Calories per serving: 108 | Prep time: 5 minutes | Ready: 5 minutes (then chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes or more)

The secret ingredient in this deliciously easy and practically instant chocolate pudding? Silken tofu. Once blended with cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla and naturally sweet stevia, this custard-textured form of tofu is transformed into an intensely chocolaty dessert that’s full of valuable phytonutrients, flavonoids and natural plant protein. Make sure you use unsweetened cocoa powder, not prepared cocoa mix. The pudding can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Ingredients:

  • 16 ounces firm silken tofu patted dry (2 cups)
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (suggested brand: Hershey’s)
  • ¼ cup pure maple syrup
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ teaspoons powdered stevia
  • Pinch fine sea salt
  • 1 cup raspberries or chopped strawberries garnish, optional​

Directions:

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine tofu, cocoa powder, maple syrup, water, vanilla extract, stevia and salt. Process until mixture is smooth and creamy, stopping as necessary to scrape down sides and center of bowl with a rubber spatula. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed with more maple syrup and/or vanilla. Adjust consistency with a little more water as needed.

Divide pudding mixture between 6 small serving dishes. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 30 minutes. Top each portion with berries, if using.

Chef’s notes: Widely used for vegan desserts, silken tofu has a delicate, custardy texture that’s very different from regular tofu. Different brands of silken tofu can vary greatly in flavor and texture. Ornish Kitchen reports it has had best results using Morinaga’s Mori Nu firm silken tofu. Look for it in aseptic (non-refrigerated) packages in the Asian foods section of your grocery store. You can also order it directly from Morinaga and other online retailers.

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