The Pritikin Program: Fad or the Real Deal?

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Understanding Common Diseases and the Value of the Pritikin Diet and Exercise Program is the title of a new book by R. James Barnard, PhD, distinguished professor emeritus at UCLA. Dr. Barnard has authored over 200 published scientific papers with more than a hundred of those evaluating the Pritikin Diet & Exercise Program.

His findings? This program can often stop and even reverse many common diseases.

When Nathan Pritikin published his first book, Live Longer Now, back in 1974, Mr. Pritikin advocated a largely plant-based diet that was very low in fat, cholesterol, salt, and refined grains and sugars. He combined this diet with regular exercise. Most of the supporting evidence Mr. Pritikin discussed in his book was based on observational data of the health of people following various diets and lifestyles. This data indicated that people who ate diets based mainly on minimally processed plant foods had much lower cholesterol levels and were far less likely to develop coronary artery disease than people living in the US and other countries where large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol were consumed. Nathan Pritikin was not trained in medicine or nutrition science, and his claim that he had reversed his own coronary artery disease (and was later teaching others to do the same) with his diet and exercise approach to disease was dismissed by most in the medical/scientific community as unproven nonsense.

Today many people still consider the Pritikin Eating Plan for preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases to be just another fad diet. However, a lot has happened since 1974, and it all shows that Mr. Pritikin was largely correct about diet and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

In 1977, Nathan Pritikin appeared on television's "60 Minutes" along with Miami-based cardiologist Dr. David Lehr and 4 men who had been told they required bypass surgery because of advanced coronary artery disease (CAD). However, instead of surgery, they opted to attend a health education program run by Nathan Pritikin out of a hotel in Santa Barbara, CA. According to Dr. Lehr, these four men (whom he had examined) were now doing surprisingly well and did indeed appear to be unclogging their blocked arteries.

Nathan Pritikin certainly had no training in nutrition science, clinical nutrition or medicine, so his claims that he could reverse the nation's #1 killer and often obviate the need for drugs or surgery certainly seemed preposterous.

Nathan Pritikin had begun his personal study of what causes CAD back in the late 1950s, after being diagnosed with CAD. He reviewed research on diet and lifestyle habits of various populations around the world. He also examined data from autopsies done on US and Asian soldiers killed during the Korean War, and reviewed research on animal models of CAD. Mr. Pritikin concluded his disease was being caused in large part by the typical American diet, which is high in fatty animal products, salt, and too many refined carbohydrates. As a result, he radically altered his diet and lifestyle, becoming convinced that he had reversed his CAD. A subsequent EKG had found his heart was functioning normally after his changes. In fact, Mr. Pritikin's autopsy in 1985 demonstrated that his arteries were indeed free of clinically significant atherosclerotic plaques as he had claimed they would be. [N Engl J Med 1985;313:52].

Since the 1980s, Dr. Barnard has published over 100 studies demonstrating the efficacy of a largely plant-based, very-low-fat diet and exercise for reducing blood pressure, improving blood lipids, reducing inflammation, and increasing insulin sensitivity. Barnard remains involved in research, much of it continuing to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Pritikin approach for preventing a wide variety of common ills besides atherosclerosis such as some types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, chronic inflammation, and many other known and suspected ills promoted by the typical modern diet.

Largely as a result of Dr. Barnard's extensive research, but also in complementary research conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish on a similar, very low-fat, largely plant-based diet, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid services has started paying for "intensive cardiac rehab" programs set up and run by the Pritikin or Ornish organizations.

Bottom Line: This is one "fad" that has stuck around, finding a wide range of support in the scientific community. For people looking to improve their heart health and slow/reverse CAD, the Pritikin program may be a good place to start.

By James J. Kenney, PhD, FACN

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