By Maureen Callahan, M.S., R.D
October 04, 2010

Nathan Pritikin first developed the Pritkin program for himself in an effort to battle what his doctors called a case of incurable heart disease. And it worked. Now his son Robert is offering the diet as a way to treat another chronic illness: obesity. The regimens notoriously low fat content and rigorous exercise recommendations have changed little over the years, yet Roberts approach is slightly different. Realizing that a lot of human behavior in regard to health, food, and fitness “is instinctual and irrational,” the younger Pritikin doesnt appeal to intellect to drive diet and lifestyle changes. Instead, he offers concrete strategies for outsmarting the biological drive to overeat. Some might call it a case of “like father, like son.” Yet Robert Pritikin seems to be continually honing the heart-healthy philosophy his father developed in the 1950s, and keeping it relevant to the times.

With high-fat temptations virtually everywhere you look, theres no question that this approach is going to be a tough sell for most dieters. Its laudable that Pritikin offers several options for reducing fat with his “Better,” “Better Still,” and “Best” lists. Yet theres no way around the fact that all of these options amount to a more Spartan regimen than many people can handle.

Basic principles:

By nature people are driven to crave and eat fatty foods. Hunger triggers this “fat instinct” and awakens cravings, as can sugar and sugary foods. To fight the instinct, you need to take five simple steps: Exercise, choose the right carbs, eat less fat, eat frequently, and maintain a consistent style of eating. Following each of the steps is necessary in order to make the program work.

How the diet works:

Daily exercise is critical to creating a craving for carbs. Once you get moving, youre supposed to eat six meals a day, choosing the right carbs (whole grains, fruits, veggies) to satisfy hunger. Nathan Pritikins original program consisted of 75 percent carbs, 15 percent protein, and 10 percent fat. If you eat from the list of “Best” foods in the new program, those numbers will shake out to be the same; if you eat according to the “Better” or “Better Still” categories, youll be consuming a bit more fat, a little less fiber, and a few more calories than the “Best” group calls for, and this could slow down weight loss.

What you can eat:

Dont concern yourself with calories. Pritikin breaks food choices down into three categories: Better, Better Still, and Best. Youre encouraged to aim for the last category, which calls for a maximum of 3.5 ounces of animal foods (meat, poultry) per day, along with two small servings of skim milk or fat-free cheese. Fruits and vegetables are unlimited; whole grains are encouraged.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Definitely. Both published studies and data from the Pritikin Longevity Center show the diet can work. There are also anecdotal stories sprinkled throughout the book. Yet you wont find a prescription that says youll lose “X” pounds in “X” weeks. This is a lifestyle, and pounds will come off at whatever pace you set.

Is the diet healthy?

Yes. Although its extremely high in carbs, theyre healthy ones like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Some critics wonder if the fat levels might be too low, but theres no proof that that such levels are harmful.

What do the experts say?

“The plan certainly has a lot of scientific support behind it,” says registered dietitian Jackie Berning, PhD, RD, an associate professor of biology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “It isnt for everybody, though.” In fact, Berning thinks its a lot more practical to cut back on fat gradually. “If you go from eating 35 percent fat down to the 10 percent called for on Pritikin, you probably wont be able to stick to it. Id rather help people be moderate,” she says. “Unless someone has symptoms of heart disease, I dont know if they need to be this strict.” Registered dietitian Edee Hogan, a nutrition and culinary consultant based in Washington, D.C., sees the program as more of a way of life than a diet. Two of her clients, a husband and wife with cardiovascular problems, have been religiously following the Pritikin regimen for many years. “It can be done,” Hogan says. “People who follow it tend to be zealots about it.”

Who should consider the diet?

Its a shoo-in for vegetarians. Folks with a family history of heart disease might want to check it out as a good prevention strategy.

Bottom line:

Its good for you, yes, but sticking with it wont be easy. Theres no question that Pritikin is an excellent approach for people with heart disease, but not everyone needs to follow this strict a path.
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