History and Benefits of Diets The Pritikin Program

About the history and benefits of the Pritikin Program diet.


The Pritikin Program

The Head Man: The latest weight-loss vogue in affluent America is Nathan Pritikin's spartan "third-world" diet, composed almost entirely of complex carbohydrates. A University of Chicago dropout who became wealthy by patenting numerous inventions in physics, chemistry, and electronics, Pritikin shifted his attention to nutrition after a diagnosis of coronary insufficiency when he was in his early 40s. Having cured himself with a stringent low-fat and low-cholesterol diet of grains and vegetables plus exercise, he set out to convert the world. Pritikin first established headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1976. Then in 1978 the Pritikin Longevity Center, offering a medically supervised 26-day course of diet and exercise for $4,800, opened in Santa Monica, Calif. Pritikin centers were then established as resort spas in Miami and Hawaii, and Pritikin programs were also set up in New York and elsewhere. In 1980 the entire town of Natchitoches, La., which has a rate of heart disease far above the national average, embarked on a do-it-yourself Pritikin diet. Vigorous and rather dogmatic in his 60s, Pritikin became something of a media hound, squaring off with Atkins, the apostle of high fat, in the pages of People magazine. His book The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise was the diet-publishing event of 1979.

Overview: Pritikin rejects the traditional balanced diet, cutting fats to the bare minimum and severely restricting meat and eggs. Sugar and other refined carbohydrates are forbidden altogether, along with coffee and tea, and even cigarettes. The emphasis is on the complex carbohydrates. Every day the dieter is to consume two types of whole grain, two servings of raw vegetables and two of cooked vegetables, one citrus fruit, and three other fresh fruits--a total of 4 lb. of food. Bran may be added as desired, and potatoes are permissible "till kingdom come." A sample day's fare consists of half a grapefruit and cooked whole wheat cereal with banana, skim milk, cinnamon, and bran for breakfast; lentil soup, whole wheat pita bread stuffed with salad, and a glass of water with lemon for lunch; oxtail soup, steamed broccoli and yellow squash, long-grained brown rice, string bean salad, and applesauce mixed with skim-milk yogurt for dinner. On such a regime, supplemented by vigorous exercise twice a day, Pritikin claims you will not only lose weight and live longer but also improve your digestion, regain sexual potency, and sleep better.

Pro: The Pritikin program is highly recommended for diabetics. Coronary cases have also found it an alternative to bypass surgery--a last-chance diet when all else has failed. Since it is basically a vegetarian diet, it is relatively inexpensive to follow at home. It also provides sufficient roughage and nutrients.

Con: Greg Erlandson of L.A. Weekly describes the Pritikin program as "a dietary version of a Hanoi reeducation camp." McCall's magazine rated it "just too restrictive for the average person," while the AMA and American Heart Association concluded it was "unpalatable and therefore untenable." Archcompetitor Dr. Atkins points out that there is no firm evidence yet that heart disease can be reversed through diet. Others warn of the risk of protein deficiency and of flatulence due to the high consumption of roughage. (The average diet consists of 4 lb. of food weekly, compared to 4 lb. daily on this diet.) Finally, the Pritikin program as administered through the "longevity centers" is prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy, usually elderly "last chancers." Early results from Natchitoches, La., indicate, however, that while total compliance may be unrealistic, the Pritikin program has succeeded in increasing consciousness of more healthful food alternatives.

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