What is the Pritikin diet?

Anita Marlay
Special to the Lake Sun, USA TODAY NETWORK
A bowl of fresh-made coleslaw with green apples.

Up until the 1970s, the general advice for people with heart disease was to take it easy and don’t exercise. Not enough was known about how diet could contribute to heart disease to make solid recommendations. In the 1980s, medications were introduced that could help lower cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol became the most important nutrient to watch in your diet to help prevent heart disease.

Nathan Pritikin was an engineer with a passion for nutrition and fitness. In the late 1970s, he designed the Pritikin diet as part of a lifestyle regimen for a health retreat in southern California. At the time, his diet was based on the belief that all fat was unhealthy and a major risk factor for heart disease. The diet required a very restrictive limit on fat, with less than 10% of total calories coming from fat, 10-15% of calories from proteins and the remaining 75-80% of calories from complex carbohydrates.

The basics of the Pritikin diet emphasize the inclusion of whole foods and the avoidance of processed foods and added sugars. Restrictions for certain foods are color-coded into three groups:

“Go foods” are labeled green and include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, nonfat dairy products, fish, and lean proteins that are low in saturated fat, such as bison, venison, skinless white poultry and plant-based proteins.

“Caution foods” are colored orange. According to the Pritikin diet, the less you eat them, the better. This includes all oils; refined sweeteners including sugar, corn syrup, and honey; salt; and refined grains, such as white bread, white pasta and white rice.

“Stop foods” are labeled red and in the Pritikin diet, shouldn’t be consumed at all. These include saturated fat-rich foods, such as butter, coconut oil, fatty meats, whole-fat dairy products, organ meats, processed meats, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and cholesterol-rich foods, such as egg yolks.

The Pritikin diet encourages two to three servings of omega-3 rich fish each week, with no more than one serving of protein per day, along with keeping sodium at one milligram or less per calorie, so as not to exceed 1,500 milligrams per day. Daily exercise is recommended, combining lots of walking with strength training. A small amount of alcohol is allowed, but no smoking and no sugary drinks or high-calorie foods.

Studies have shown that following the Pritikin diet can help reverse heart disease, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and result in weight loss. Many people who follow the diet have been able to reduce or even eliminate some medications. The diet reduces not only dietary cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium but also overall calories. The diet is high in fiber due to the predominance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The downside to the diet is that it is very structured and can be difficult to follow in a “normal” world. It takes time to make good-tasting, low-fat, low-sodium foods. It is difficult, if not impossible, to eat out and follow the diet restrictions. Because the diet is very low in fat, it might leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied. You may become deficient in essential fatty acids or certain vitamins without enough fat for the body to absorb them properly.

Extremely low-fat diets have fallen out of favor in the treatment of heart disease. We now know more about heart-healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds and avocados, which would not be allowed on a strict Pritikin diet.

Today, the Pritikin approach is more about heart-healthy changes to your diet and exercise routine, which can be adapted to your lifestyle to make it more sustainable in the long run. At the Pritikin health resort in Miami, guests spend a week or longer receiving personalized coaching to support a shift to a healthier lifestyle the Pritikin way. Guests work with exercise physiologists to develop a sustainable exercise program, with chefs to learn how to cook healthier meals, with dietitians, and with behavioral health and addiction specialists, if needed.

As always, consult your doctor before starting any diet plan, and don’t cut back on any medication without your doctor’s approval.

Sour Apple Slaw

Serves 12

8 cups shredded green cabbage, about ½ a head

1 ½ tsp salt

¼ cup vinegar

2 Tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp Dijon mustard

½ tsp ground pepper

3 medium Granny Smith apples, shredded or julienned

3 cups spinach leaves, thinly sliced

2 scallions, sliced

1 tsp mince fresh parsley

1 tsp minced fresh tarragon

Toss the cabbage and salt in a colander set over a large bowl. Let wilt for 30 minutes.

Plunge the cabbage into a bowl of cold water. Drain and pat dry.

Whisk vinegar, syrup, mustard and pepper together in a large bowl. Add all remaining ingredients, and toss to coat well.

Nutrition Information: 48 calories, 11 g carbs, 1 g protein, 3 g fiber, 215 mg sodium

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.