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The Pritikin diet is a heart-healthy high-carbohydrate, low-fat, moderate-exercise lifestyle diet developed in the 1960s.
Nathan Pritikin, the originator of the Pritikin Diet, was diagnosed with heart disease at the age of 42. In the late 1950s when Pritikin was diagnosed, about 40% of calories in the average American diet came from fats. Pritikin was given little medical guidance on how lifestyle changes might slow his heart disease. Although educated as an engineer, Pritikin devised his own heart-healthy diet, which he followed rigorously. Based on his experience, he opened the Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida in 1975. Here people could come and immerse themselves for one or more weeks in the Pritikin Eating Plan.
Nathan Pritikin developed cancer and committed suicide in 1985 at the age of 69. At his autopsy, doctors discovered no signs of heart disease, a fact they attributed to his rigorous life-long adherence to his diet. Robert Pritikin, Nathan’s son, took over the Longevity Center enterprises after Nathan’s death. While maintaining the core of the original diet, Robert updated some of the concepts in his book The Pritikin Principle: The Calorie Density Solution. published in 2000.
At the time Pritikin developed his diet, his concepts seemed quite radical. However Pritikin was ahead of his time, and today, despite a few controversies, most of his principles have been incorporated into advice given on how to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by mainstream organizations such as the American Heart Association.
The Pritikin Plan is a diet that is high in whole grains and dietary fiber, low in cholesterol, and very low in fats. Fewer than 10% of calories come from fats. This is much lower than the average twenty-first century American diet, in which about 35% of calories come from fats. It is about half the amount of fats recommended in the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. The diet is also lower in protein than suggested in the federal guidelines. However, in general, the Pritikin Plan reflects many recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. It results in low calorie, nutritionally balanced meals. In addition, the Pritikin plan calls for 45 minutes daily of moderate exercise such as walking, another recommendation in line with mainstream medical advice.
The newest version of the Pritikin Plan calls for avoiding foods that are calorie dense. These are foods that pack a lot of calories into a small volume of food (e.g. oils, cookies, cream cheese). Instead, Plan followers are encouraged to choose low-calorie foods that provide a lot of bulk (e.g. broccoli, carrots, dried beans). This way, dieters can eat a lot of food and feel full without taking in a lot of calories. The plan does not limit the amount of healthy fruits and
vegetables a dieter can eat, and it suggests that dieters divide their food among five or six smaller meals during the day.
The Pritikin Plan is based on eating a particular number of servings of each group of foods as follows:
- at least five ½-cup servings of whole grains such as wheat, oats, and brown rice or starch vegetables such as potatoes, and dried beans and peas. Refined grain products (white flour, regular pasta, white rice) are limited to two servings daily, with complete elimination of refined grain products considered optimal.
- at least four 1-cup servings of raw vegetables or ½-cup servings of cooked vegetables. Dark green, leafy, and orange or yellow vegetables are preferred.
- at least three servings of fruit, one of which can be fruit juice.
- two servings of calcium-rich foods such as nonfat milk, nonfat yogurt or fortified and enriched soymilk.
- no more than one 3.5 cooked serving of animal protein. Fish and shellfish are preferred. Lean poultry should optimally be limited to once a week and lean beef to once a month. This diet is easily adapted to vegetarians by replacing animal protein with protein from soy products, beans, or lentils.
- no more than one caffeinated drinks daily. Instead drink water, low-sodium vegetable juices, grain-based coffee substitutes (e.g. Postum) or caffeine-free teas.
- no more than four alcoholic drinks per week for women and no more than seven for men, with red wine preferred over beer or distilled spirits.
- no more than seven egg whites per week
- no more than 2 ounces (about 1/4 cup of nuts) daily
Other foods such as unsaturated oils, refined sweeteners (e.g. concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup), high-sodium condiments (e.g. soy sauce), and artificial sweeteners (e.g. Splenda) are “caution” foods. They are not recommended, but if they are used, the Plan gives guidance in how to limit them to reasonable amounts. Animal fats, processed meat, dairy products not made with non-rat milk, egg yolks, salty snacks, cakes, cookies, fried foods and similar high-calorie choices are forbidden.
The Plan also calls for at least 45 minutes of moderate exercise daily such as walking. People who check into the Longevity Center receive a personalized exercise program after a physician gives them an examination. This doctor follows their progress while at the center and makes a written report at the end of their stay that they can take home to their personal physician. People who do not visit the Longevity Center can receive support and inspiration through the Plan’s extensive Web site. Pritikin has also developed a Family Plan aimed at families with obese children.
Unlike many diets, the Pritikin Plan never claims that a person will lose a certain amount of weight within a certain length of time. People who follow the Plan, which is a low calorie diet, do lose weight and keep it off so long as they stay on the plan. However, the Plan is primarily intended to cause changes in lifestyle that will promote heart health for a lifetime.
Pritikin Diet emphasizes the following health benefits:
- lowered total cholesterol and LDL or “bad” cholesterol
- lowered blood pressure, so that people with high blood pressure may no longer need pressure-lowering drugs
- better control of insulin levels, so that people with type 2 diabetes can often control their disease through diet and without drugs
- decrease in the circulating levels of compounds that increases the risk of heart disease and blood vessel damage
- a substantially reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and breast, colon, and prostate cancers.
- lifetime freedom from obesity and all of its associated health risks and lifestyle-limiting conditions
As with any diet, people should discuss with their physician the pros and cons of the Pritikin Plan based on their individual circumstances. This diet may not be right for actively growing children.
The greatest risk to this diet is that it is too rigorous for many people, and that they will lose weight on the diet and then gain it back, causing weight cycling (yo-yo dieting) and the potential health problems that repeated weight gain and loss cause.
Unlike many diets, the Pritikin Plan has the respect of much of the medical community and has a thirty-year history of delivering on most of its health promises. Supporters of the diet point to many studies done by both Longevity Center doctors and outside investigators and published in highly respected journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Associationand the New England Journal of Medicine. People do lose weight and keep it off, along with decreasing the risk of heart disease when following the plan.
Dietitians and nutritionists also like the fact that the diet teaches people how to eat well using ordinary foods rather than special pre-packaged foods. This keeps the cost of following the Plan low, especially since the Plan calls for dieters to eat only small quantities of meat. In addition, the Plan is designed to provide a balance of vitamins and minerals from food and does not rely on dietary supplements.
The biggest criticism of the Pritikin Plan is that it requires rigorous self-discipline to stay on for a lifetime. People who do well on the Pritikin Plan tend to be highly motivated and zealous about following the diet. Many healthcare professionals feel long-term success for most people is more likely to occur if the dieter follows a well-balanced but less rigorous diet.
Some nutritionists also take issue with whether the low fat component of the diet allows people to get enough beneficial fats such as omega-3 fatty acids and whether absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K is impaired. To date these criticisms have not been supported by research findings. However, critics were handed more ammunition by a long-term study of 49,000 American women ages 50–79 that found that a low-fat diet had no effect on the risk of developing heart disease or cancer. The study was published in February 2006 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings are controversial, and go against much current medical thinking. This study will certainly stimulate additional research on low-fat diets.
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Tish Davidson, A.M.