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