The Pritikin Principle

Last Editorial Review: 7/10/2007

The Pritikin Principle: What It Is

Everyone who's ever thought about going on a diet has at least heard of The Pritikin Approach: a low-fat diet, not vegetarian, but largely based on vegetables, grains and fruits. Fat in the diet accounts for a mere 10%. Since 1976, more than 70,000 people have spent time at the Pritikin Longevity Centers learning how to eat healthy, prepare low-fat meals and snacks, and incorporate exercise and stress-reduction techniques into their lives. Several books by Nathan Pritikin carried the message of the Pritikin approach to the masses. It was an approach designed largely to promote well-being by lowering cholesterol and helping diabetics normalize their blood sugar without taking insulin. That people lost weight was an added plus.

Now his son, Robert, has taken over and tweaked the concept. The same plant-based foods of the original are the staples of his diet, and the fat content of the regimen is still about as low as you can go. But Robert's latest book, The Pritikin Principle (following The New Pritikin Program and The Pritikin Weight Loss Breakthrough) focuses on something he calls The Calorie Density Solution.

He claims the concern is not calories but rather how dense they are in any given food. Fill up on foods that have relatively few calories per pound and you will lose the "excess body fat that threatens your health and longevity."

Choosing foods that are not "calorie dense," such as apples and oatmeal, promises to "give you the freedom to eat until you are full and never limit your portions or be hungry in order to lose weight." The higher the caloric density of any given food, the more likely it is to cause weight gain, because you will consume more calories to feel full than if you choose foods with a lower caloric density. A pound of broccoli, for instance, has only 130 calories (that's raw and unbuttered, of course) but a pound of chocolate chip cookies has 2,140 calories. You get the drift -- broccoli, good; chocolate chip cookies, bad.

The Pritikin Principle: What You Can Eat

Some foods have more calories packed in them, bite for bite and pound for pound, claims Pritikin. If we eat foods with fewer calories per pound, we can fill up on these foods and still have the kind of calorie deficit that we need to lose weight. Pritikin doesn't shy away from the basic principle that weight loss is achieved by eating fewer calories than you burn each day, which is refreshing, given the spate of current diet books that attempt to ignore that simple but unalterable axiom. The Pritikin Principle has more than 20 pages of charts listing the caloric density of all kinds of foods, from snacks to sausages, listing them in calories per pound to graphically demonstrate the striking calorie differences between low-density foods and high-density foods.

Not surprisingly, the more processed the food, the more likely they are packed full of calories. Corn, for instance, starts out at a somewhat reasonable 490 calories per pound. By the time it ends up in a tortilla chip at your favorite Mexican restaurant, it's skyrocketed to 2,450 calories per pound. However, eat it with guacamole, and the combination (avocado dip with the chips) drops the number to 1,450 calories per pound.

The plan is to eat food with a large volume of fiber and water to fill up your stomach -- vegetables, fruits, beans, and natural, unprocessed grains. These foods, he claims, "create tremendous feelings of fullness, or satiety, in your stomach." In addition to eating three meals a day, the program incorporates two "calorically light" snacks as well. While Pritikin doesn't have you counting calories, you do have to possess a basic understanding of how to calculate the "average caloric density of your meal," and then keep that average below a certain number.

Exercise is strongly recommended, and walking is his favorite. How much is just right to maintain weight loss? Based on observations of obese people who lost weight and kept it off, Pritikin suggests "All of us should use ... 30 miles a week as a goal." For the rest of us, however, he suggests one 30-minute walk a day. Going at a good clip, you might average 12 to 15 miles a week.

The Pritikin Principle: How It Works

To lose weight, most of us will need to keep the average caloric density of each meal below 400 calories per pound. Since most vegetables fall below 200 calories per pound, when they are eaten with meat and starches, they bring down the calorie average of each meal. High-carbohydrate food, along with pasta and hot cereals, range between 230 to 630 calories per pound. Animal protein goes from 400 calories per pound (some fish) to 1,400 (that juicy porterhouse steak) to 2,170 (bacon). By combining the leanest portions of animal protein with plenty of vegetables, you can get the caloric density down to a level where you will lose weight, according to Pritikin's plan.

To keep within the suggested guidelines, Pritikin suggests we eat whole, unprocessed, and natural carbohydrate-rich foods, such as grains, vegetables, and fruit. Those preferred are:

  • Brown rice
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • A wide assortment of dark green lettuces
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Squash
  • Beans (black turtle beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima and pinto beans)
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Strawberries
  • Bananas

Some processed whole-grain foods, such as oatmeal, are acceptable. Even white-flour pasta is okay, as long as it is combined with vegetables to bring down the caloric density of the whole meal.

Other guidelines: Eat small portions of lean beef, chicken, and low-fat dairy products. Fish is fine, preferably three servings per week of omega-3 rich seafood. Avoid fried foods, dressing with fat, and fatty sauces. Eat frequently. Have three meals a day plus two snacks. Stay active and avoid salty foods. Artificial sweeteners such as Splenda are okay. And decaf tea, once frowned upon, is fine.

The book contains several pages of suggested meals and tips on how they might be improved with substitutions, as well as a restaurant guide for everything from a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy's to buttered noodles in a French restaurant to a serving of almond chicken in a Chinese establishment. More than 50 recipes are also included.

The Pritikin Principle: What the Experts Say

There seems to be little dispute that you will lose weight on the Pritikin diet or that it is generally a nutritionally rich diet low in calories. But there are caveats: "Because fat makes one feel full, the extremely low fat content of this diet will make those following it often feel hungry," says Teryl L. Tanaka, RD, the clinical nutrition manager at the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center. Consequently, she adds, the likelihood is high of the weight returning after one stops strictly adhering to the diet.

James Hill, PhD, the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, agrees that the diet is not practical for many people. While observing that people staying at the Pritikin Centers do really well losing weight, he asks: "How realistic is the diet once they get away from the centers and into the real world?"

Both the Pritikin diet and the nutritionally similar Ornish diet are extremely low in fat, Hill notes, down to 10% of total calories. "Yes, if we could do that we would all be healthier, but it is very hard to follow that formula in our environment," he cautions. "It's difficult to maintain such a low-fat content of our diets if you eat out often, and it takes time to prepare good,-tasting low-fat food. Most people do not have the time to spend hours each day preparing food."

Another problem, adds Tanaka, is that the low-fat content may actually be harmful to our health, "Pritikin also inhibits the intake and absorption of fat soluble vitamins, and can even limit the amount of essential fatty acids provided by the diet needed for normal cell function, healthy skin and tissue, growth and development."

The Pritikin Principle: Food for Thought

What do most nutritionists and health authorities like about the diet? Its strict limit of animal products -- often associated with a variety of major diseases -- and that it incorporates exercise and stress reduction, along with overall low calorie intake. But this is qualified with a concern that the extremely low-fat regimen is difficult to stick with over the long haul.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, on July 10, 2007.

Sources: Pritikin, R. The Pritikin Principle, 2000, Time-Life Books. James Hill, PhD, director, the Center for Human Nutrition, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. Teryl L. Tanaka, RD, clinical nutrition manager, Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center.

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