The Pritikin Diet
Who is Nathan Pritikin?
Born in 1915, Nathan Pritikin was an unlikely candidate to become a leader in the field of nutrition and lifestyle medicine. Pritikin started his career as a successful engineer and inventor for companies such as General Electric, Honeywell, and Bendix. However, a diagnosis of heart disease at the age of forty-two shifted his focus to improving his personal health.
Pritikin’s doctors warned him that cardiovascular disease was an incurable condition. Refusing to believe this prognosis, Pritikin voraciously researched the diets of people around the world with the lowest rates of disease.
Based on this research, he created a low-fat diet centered on whole plant foods, which dramatically lowered his cholesterol and improved his overall health.
Unfortunately, Pritikin passed away at the age of sixty-nine after a long battle with Leukemia. However, his autopsy revealed plaque-free arteries and a remarkably healthy cardiovascular system.
What is the Pritikin Diet?
The Pritikin diet is a high-fiber, low-fat diet designed to reduce cholesterol and improve heart health. On this plan, roughly 70-80% of calories come from carbohydrates, 10-15% from fat, and 10-15% from protein. While the Pritikin diet does include very small amounts of animal products, plant foods are the star of every meal.
The Pritikin diet also incorporates physical activity into its model of lifestyle intervention. Along with dietary changes, the Pritikin diet recommends daily aerobic exercise, strength training three times per week, and stretching regularly to promote overall well being.
How to Follow the Pritikin Diet
The Pritikin diet is not a trendy new plan designed to help lose inches off our waist or help us get six pack abs. Instead, this diet relies upon fundamental principles of nutrition to holistically improve our health.
Eating a variety of whole plant foods and exercising helps to prevent disease and promote human health. With that being said, let’s take a look at the Pritikin diet food list:
As you can see, foods that are high in fat and cholesterol such as cheese, processed meats and egg yolks are completely avoided on the Pritikin diet. In addition, some animal foods such as leaner meats and fish with a low mercury content are permitted.
However, the four main food groups of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes make up the vast majority of calories consumed on the Pritikin diet.
Summary: The Pritikin diet is a plant based diet, with only a fraction of calories coming from animal sources. Processed foods and foods high in fat and cholesterol are limited or completely avoided.
Pros of the Pritikin Diet
1. Emphasis on Whole Plant Foods
Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
Nathan Pritikin helped thousands of people throughout his career cure or dramatically improve their heart disease. Since then, many studies have confirmed the powerful artery-clearing effects of lifestyle intervention and plant-based nutrition (1).
Perhaps the most impressive example of these studies was conducted by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic in 2014. In his research, 198 patients with advanced cardiovascular disease volunteered to eat a completely plant-based diet.
Of the 177 patients who stuck with the plant based diet for over three years, 99.4% of them prevented and reversed their heart disease.
On the other hand, of the twenty-one patients who did not comply with the diet, thirteen of them suffered a major cardiac event such as a heart attack or stroke. This landmark study demonstrates that a plant based diet can reverse heart disease — no other diet has ever accomplished this feat (2).
Reduced Risk of Cancer
The prescription to improve heart disease is actually the same prescription to fight cancer: a whole food plant based diet does both. In 2006, four researchers from UCLA tested the Pritikin diet’s ability to fight breast cancer cells.
The subjects of this experiment were separated into two groups: an experimental group that followed the Pritikin diet and a control group that followed the standard American diet.
After only twelve days, blood samples were taken from each group and dripped onto petri dishes containing breast cancer cells. After the twelve days on a plant-based diet, the blood from the experimental group killed off cancer cells at a 20-30% higher rate than that of the control group (3).
In the above photos, white dots represent cancer dell death. As you can see, on the left, the blood of women eating an average diet caused only some cancer cells to die. However, the photo on the right represents the effects of the blood of women eating a plant based diet for twelve days — their blood had gained the ability to kill off more cancer cells than ever before.
A similar study was conducted on diet and prostate cancer cells. However, this time, the subjects followed both diets for one year instead of less than two weeks. A plant-based diet reduced prostate cancer cell growth by 70%, eight times that of the standard American diet.
But why do animal foods tend to promote cancer more effectively than plant foods? The answer may lie in the protein known as IGF-1, which stands for insulin like growth factor-1. Consumption of animal protein tends to increase levels of the protein IGF-1 in the body. Increased levels of IGF-1 circulating in the blood are highly correlated with cancer, especially prostate cancer.
A meta-analysis of 42 studies published in 2009 in the International Journal of Cancer “confirms that raised circulating lGF-I is positively associated with prostate cancer risk"(4). IGF-1 plays a crucial role in the promotion and progression of every stage of cancer.
It even helps our body undergo angiogenesis, the creation of new blood vessels to feed cancer cells. When we eat a diet rich in animal protein, we put ourselves at risk for increased levels of IGF-1 and the growth of cancer cells.
3. No Calorie Counting
Many diet programs encourage consistent calorie counting and food journaling. While tracking what we eat can be a useful tool, counting calories can also consume our time and cause stress for many people. Truth be told, the number of calories in a food tells you nothing about its quality of nutrition.
We ought to be concerned with which kinds of foods we are eating rather than how many calories these foods contain.
On the Pritikin diet, food is intended to be used as fuel to give us energy throughout each day. Whole plant foods are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and low in calories. Therefore, we can nourish our body and eat with intuition instead of quantifying each meal.
4. Avoidance of Junk Food
The Pritikin diet emphasizes the consumption of whole foods rather than processed foods. Processed foods such as chips and cookies are high in added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and unhealthy oils. On the other hand, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables contain far more antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Junk food is simply the wrong fuel for the human body. When we eat a lot of it, we tend to develop disease over time. Instead, we should focus on filling our diets with more healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 2.8 million deaths each year are linked to low fruit and vegetable consumption. In addition, other researchers have found that if only half of the United States population were to eat just one more serving of fruits and veggies every day, an estimated 20,000 new cancer cases might be avoided (5).
Clearly, this is a life and death situation. Thankfully, the Pritikin diet is full of health promoting whole plant foods and very low on junk food.
Summary: The Pritikin diet is full of whole plant foods that can reduce our risk of heart disease and cancer, as well as increase our longevity.
Cons of the Pritikin Diet
1. Inclusion of Animal Foods
Nathan Pritikin originally designed the Pritikin diet with the goal of reducing his blood cholesterol levels. Increased cholesterol intake is highly associated with elevated blood cholesterol levels. In other words, when we eat foods that contain cholesterol, more cholesterol tends to settle in our bloodstream (6).
Because only animal foods contain cholesterol, the Pritikin diet only permits very small servings of animal protein (about the size of a deck of cards). For example, Pritikin only allows 85g or less of chicken or fish every week on his diet (7).
To put that in perspective, one chicken breast is 55g by weight and one standard restaurant size portion of salmon is roughly 90g. Nevertheless, if the goal of the Pritikin diet is to reduce cholesterol and body fat, why include any animal foods at all?
By nearly every metric, plant foods are healthier than animal foods. Take antioxidants for example. Antioxidants are particles that reduce damage to our cells and help to prevent nearly every chronic disease. On average, plant foods contain 64x the amount of antioxidants than animal foods (8).
Fiber represents another important nutrient that is, by definition, only found in plants. Fiber helps to protects against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and a number of other chronic diseases (9).
While many people are concerned with getting enough protein, we should actually be concerned with getting enough fiber, as less than 3% of Americans eat the recommended daily intake of fiber of just 25-30 grams (10).
In addition, animal foods are typically much more calorically dense than plant foods. As a result, eating too many animal foods can lead to weight gain. On the contrary, there are few examples of people gaining weight by eating too many fruits and vegetables, as they are relatively low in calories.
While the Pritikin diet only allows animal products in small portions, they can still increase our risk for chronic disease. Even unprocessed red meats are labeled as “probable carcinogens” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (11). When it comes to choosing our protein, chickpeas will always be a healthier option than chicken, no matter the portion size.
Summary: The Pritikin diet permits the consumption of small amounts of cholesterol laden animal protein, which has been shown to increase our risk of heart disease.
The Pritikin diet represents a significant improvement over the standard American diet. The thousands of patients who dramatically improved their heart disease following Pritikin’s diet and exercise program serve as proof of this fact.
A whole food plant-based diet can help prevent, treat, and sometimes reverse heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses that plague the Western world. That being said, we don’t need to wait until we are ill to start eating healthily. The Pritikin diet is a very healthy option for people of all ages and lifestyles.
Final Conclusion: Minus the inclusion of a small amount of animal products, the Pritikin diet is full of nutrient dense plant foods, making it one of the healthiest diets on the planet.
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1. Jhamnani, S, D Patel, L Heimlich, F King, B Walitt, and J Lindsay. “Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Lifestyle Modifications on Coronary and Carotid Atherosclerotic Burden.” The American journal of cardiology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 15, 2015.
2. Esselstyn, Caldwell B, Gina Gendy, Jonathan Doyle, Mladen Golubic, and Michael F Roizen. “A Way to Reverse CAD?” The Journal of family practice. U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2014.
3. Barnard, R James, Jenny Hong Gonzalez, Maud E Liva, and Tung H Ngo. “Effects of a Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diet and Exercise Program on Breast Cancer Risk Factors in Vivo and Tumor Cell Growth and Apoptosis in Vitro.” Nutrition and cancer. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2006.
4. Rowlands, Mari-Anne, David Gunnell, Ross Harris, Lars J. Vatten, Jeff M.p. Holly, and Richard M. Martin. “Circulating Insulin-like Growth Factor Peptides and Prostate Cancer Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” International Journal of Cancer 124, no. 10 (2009): 2416–29.
5. Reetica, McConchie, and Robyn. “Promoting Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables for Better Health. Have Campaigns Delivered on the Goals?, Appetite.” DeepDyve. Elsevier, August 1, 2014.
6. Ginsberg, H N, W Karmally, M Siddiqui, S Holleran, A R Tall, W S Blaner, and R Ramakrishnan. “Increases in Dietary Cholesterol Are Associated with Modest Increases in Both LDL and HDL Cholesterol in Healthy Young Women.” Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, February 1995.
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8. Carlsen, Monica H, Bente L Halvorsen, Kari Holte, Siv K Bøhn, Steinar Dragland, Laura Sampson, Carol Willey, et al. “The Total Antioxidant Content of More than 3100 Foods, Beverages, Spices, Herbs and Supplements Used Worldwide.” Nutrition journal. BioMed Central, January 22, 2010.
9. Dilzer, Allison. “The Family of Dietary Fibers: Dietary Variety for Maximum... : Nutrition Today.” LWW. Accessed April 15, 2020.
10. “NHANES - What We Eat in America.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 6, 2015.
11. “Q&A On the Carcinogenicity of the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, May 17, 2016.