Nathan Pritikin

Nathan Pritikin

Nathan Pri­tikin was an engi­neer who had no for­mal train­ing in nutri­tion or dietet­ics. Yet he rich­ly deserves the title “The Man Who Healed America’s Heart.” Pri­tikin advo­cat­ed a low-fat, high-fiber, large­ly plant-based diet that helped him and many oth­er peo­ple recov­er from severe coro­nary artery dis­ease. He launched a research pro­gram that val­i­dat­ed his ideas about nutri­tion and pro­duced numer­ous clin­i­cal stud­ies pub­lished in the most pres­ti­gious med­ical jour­nals.

Pri­tikin attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go from 1933 to 1935 but left before fin­ish­ing his bachelor’s degree. He went on to become an inven­tor, hold­ing many U.S. patents in engi­neer­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, and aero­nau­tics.

While work­ing for the OSS (the fore­run­ner to the CIA), Pri­tikin had seen some clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion that deaths from nat­ur­al caus­es (such as heart attacks and strokes) had actu­al­ly gone down in Ger­many dur­ing the war. Pri­tikin sus­pect­ed that this puz­zling phe­nom­e­non was prob­a­bly the result of food rationing: rich, fat­ty foods such as meat, but­ter, and eggs were sim­ply in short sup­ply. As a result, Pri­tikin start­ed fol­low­ing the work of Dr. Lester Mor­ri­son, a physi­cian who treat­ed heart dis­ease by giv­ing patients a diet that mim­ic­ked wartime rationing.

Mor­ri­son found that Pritikin’s total cho­les­terol was over 300 mg/dL, which is dan­ger­ous­ly high. Then a stress echocar­dio­gram showed that Pritikin’s coro­nary arter­ies were clog­ging up. A sec­ond car­di­ol­o­gist con­firmed that Pri­tikin had sub­stan­tial coro­nary artery dis­ease. He was only 41 years old.

A team of car­di­ol­o­gists gave Pri­tikin the stan­dard advice of the day: stop exer­cis­ing, stop climb­ing stairs, take it easy, and take naps in the after­noon. He ignored them. Instead, he decid­ed to change his diet. He knew from pop­u­la­tion stud­ies that ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis can build up in the coro­nary arter­ies at any total cho­les­terol lev­el above 160 mg/dL. By April 1958, Pri­tikin became a veg­e­tar­i­an and start­ed run­ning sev­er­al miles a day. With­in a month, his total cho­les­terol dropped to 162 mg/dL. In Jan­u­ary 1960, his total cho­les­terol was down to 120 mg/dL, and the results of his car­diac stress test were total­ly nor­mal. In oth­er words, he had cured his own heart dis­ease.

Over the fol­low­ing 25 years, Nathan Pri­tikin launched sev­er­al research projects that pro­vid­ed study after study val­i­dat­ing the effi­ca­cy of his diet and exer­cise pro­gram for treat­ing heart dis­ease. More than 100 of these stud­ies have now been pub­lished in impor­tant med­ical jour­nals, includ­ing the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine, the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion, and Cir­cu­la­tion. Pri­tikin also wrote some best-sell­ing books and opened a health resort that was fea­tured on the CBS tele­vi­sion pro­gram 60 Min­utes.

In this video from 1982, Dr. John McDougall inter­viewed Nathan Pri­tikin:

Dur­ing the 1970s, Pri­tikin engaged in numer­ous tele­vised debates with Dr. Robert Atkins, a car­di­ol­o­gist who was advo­cat­ing a diet that was dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the Pri­tikin diet. Instead of a low-fat, veg­e­tar­i­an diet that gets a lot of its calo­ries from starch, Atkins was pro­mot­ing a diet that was devoid of car­bo­hy­drates and cor­re­spond­ing­ly high in fat and pro­tein. Ulti­mate­ly, Pri­tikin was able to have the last word in the debate.

Few peo­ple knew that Nathan Pri­tikin had been suf­fer­ing since 1957 from ane­mia and leukemia caused by radi­a­tion treat­ment that had been giv­en to him to treat a skin dis­or­der. After being sta­ble for so many years, his con­di­tion start­ed to dete­ri­o­rate in late 1984. Then, an exper­i­men­tal treat­ment led to severe com­pli­ca­tions, includ­ing kid­ney fail­ure and seri­ous liv­er dam­age. Rather than depend­ing on life-sup­port sys­tems, Pri­tikin chose to end his own life. He also insist­ed that the results of his autop­sy be pub­lished in a med­ical jour­nal. The results of his autop­sy were pub­lished in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine. The pathol­o­gist report­ed that Pri­tikin had no signs of heart dis­ease, and his arter­ies were as soft and pli­able as a teenager’s. “In a man 69 years old, the near absence of ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis and the com­plete absence of its effects are remarkable.”[1]

Reference List

  1. Hub­bard JD, Inke­les S, Barnard RJ. Nathan Pritikin’s heart. N Engl J Med. 1985;313(1):52.