Nathan Pritikin's Diet Book Is Selling Like Hotcakes, a Dish He Sure Hopes You Won't Eat
Pritikin wants only those with an iron will to try the low-fat, high-carbohydrate cuisine and rigorous daily workout described in his best-selling The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise (Grosset and Dunlap, $12.95). His regimen is so spartan that the Scarsdale diet seems like a caloric orgy in comparison.
"There are only two basic diets," Pritikin says. "The Western World and the Third World. The Pritikin diet is essentially Third World. Since 1900, deaths in the Western World due to heart attacks have increased 500 percent. In primitive societies degenerative disease rates are nearly zero."
The Pritikin diet is aimed at Americans who have, or fear getting, coronary artery disease. It is top-heavy with vegetables, fruit and grains. Fats, oils, sugar and most dairy products are taboo. Lean fish is okay, but meat is limited. Tobacco, coffee and tea are out. As a coffee substitute, Pritikin recommends linden flower tea. Alcohol is discouraged, but a daily glass of wine is grudgingly permitted.
"You eat eight small meals a day," Pritikin explains. "You're never hungry." He preaches what he himself practices at special "longevity centers" in Santa Monica and Miami. Last year he opened a third facility on the Hawaiian island of Maui that has attracted a clientele of pilots who face loss of their licenses because of health problems.
In the longevity centers a patient pays a $3,300 fee, plus $1,500 in medical expenses, for 26 days of treatment. (Pritikin is not a doctor, but his medical group has 14 on call.) So far nearly 5,000 men and women (average age: 55 to 60) have enrolled. Besides the eight fat-free minimeals, they get individual exercise programs and lectures on health and diet.
Many of the patients arrive on stretchers or in wheelchairs, Pritikin says, and are walking within a few days. One 91-year-old woman improved sufficiently to win medals in the Senior Olympics. California Gov. Jerry Brown shed 35 pounds at home with the diet but admits he has lapsed since. In almost all cases cholesterol levels drop dramatically. "We know we have a real alternative to most coronary bypass operations," says Pritikin.
His program has set off a lively argument in medical circles. Dr. James Anderson, chief of the VA's Endocrine Metabolism Section in Lexington, Ky., says, "Our five-year studies of the way in which a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet lowers cholesterol in diabetics and heart patients bears out Mr. Pritikin's work."
Other physicians pooh-pooh Pritikin. Dr. Robert Levy, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md., complains: "His research is like a mixture of apples and oranges." There is no evidence, adds Levy, that heart disease can be reversed through diet. Other doctors see real danger, ranging from amino acid deficiency (a charge Pritikin denies) to possible depression caused by failure to stick to the diet.
One reason Pritikin is undaunted by criticism is his own experience with serious heart disease. When doctors told him 22 years ago he had posterial wall myocardial ischemia, he went on a low-fat diet of his own invention. Within three years he reduced his cholesterol level by more than half. Meanwhile he began taking long walks, then even jogging. "My doctor had led me to believe that I would drop dead if I overdid," he recalls. Today Pritikin runs seven miles a day and says that at 63 he is in superb health.
Self-help has characterized Pritikin's life. The son of a Chicago salesman, he was fascinated by the human body as a child and memorized all 206 of its bones by age 13. At the University of Chicago, while ostensibly studying pre-law, he took as many as eight science courses in a semester. When the Depression forced him to drop out in 1935, he embarked on a lucrative career as an inventor. His patents in physics, chemistry and electrical engineering are still used by companies like GE and Honeywell. While dieting himself back to health, he began lecturing at medical conventions and continuing his research. "As usual, the truth is very simple," he tells doctors. "The degenerative diseases are not diseases in the true sense of the word. They are environmental problems from the food we eat."
Skeptics, of course, still ask him: "What's the fun of living if you have to give up so many good things?" Pritikin's answer: "What's the fun of living crippled with heart disease? Or, more directly, what's the fun of dying?"