Pritikin—College dropout who could’ve won the Nobel Prize

So what’s the story about the amazing Nathan Pritikin?

Nathan Pritikin, A very special American

Nathan Pritikin, A very special American

In a People Magazine article shortly after his premature death in 1985, one of his staff described the great man thusly: “Nathan was a great researcher, a genius who was able to see clearly through mazes of information and come to conclusions that others overlooked.” In short, he was a “big picture” guy who had little patience with the commercially driven medical establishment that had no interest in embracing the powerful truth about plant-based nutrition.

Why am I writing about him now? I have heard about the famous Pritikin Diet for many years but, until last week, had never heard Mr. Pritikin speak. One of my blog reading friends (Bill Kleinbauer) was kind enough to send me a video of him being interviewed by Dr. John McDougall back in 1982. Pritikin looked like a very young man in the video, he was 67 in 1982—and young Dr. McDougall looked almost like a teenager. Since watching that video, I have done a little more research and would like to share that with you in this blog.

As a first, I want to share a brief introduction with you—a 90-second video about Pritikin that was recently published by Dr. Michael Greger. This video provides you with the “big picture” and the next video enables you to sort of “get to know” this amazing man.

The next video below is about 55 minutes and features a very relaxed format in which Pritikin does about 95% of the talking as he answers a series of questions about diet, health, and disease. Pritikin talks casually about how he was diagnosed with heart disease at age 40 with a total cholesterol reading of nearly 300. He talks about how he used his own body as somewhat of a lab and, using a low-fat vegetarian diet, was able to reduce his cholesterol down to about 100.

George McGovern, another visionary American who was a friend and follower of Nathan Pritikin

George McGovern, another visionary American who was a friend and follower of Nathan Pritikin

When he re-introduced animal protein into his diet, the cholesterol went back up, so he eliminated it again—bringing his cholesterol back down to 100. Then he experimented by adding small amounts of protein for a period of time and measuring exactly what happened.

He ultimately discovered a “sweet spot” of sorts where he could eat some animal protein (to get his B12) without raising his cholesterol at all. Then he jokingly remarks, “but by then, I had lost the taste for animal foods, anyway.”

I liken his “self-taught” method in the field of medicine to what I have been doing regarding the “big picture” of our food choices and the staggering impact on so many global issues—beginning with our own health. It’s truly amazing how much you can learn about any topic—if you’re simply willing to invest the requisite 10,000 hours.

Sadly, Pritikin suffered a premature death at the age of 69 in 1985, after his radiation-induced leukemia came out of a lengthy remission. According to Wikipedia, he ultimately took his own life rather than endure the horrible last days of his cancer. Ironically, he committed suicide on my 4oth birthday.

A casual hour with Nathan Pritikin and Dr. John McDougall

In this video, he seemed to think that we were on the verge of transforming the way we eat and eliminating the many food-borne diseases that cause so much pain, suffering, costs and deaths in the western world. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like things have changed much since 1982. The Federal government is still our biggest “drug pusher” and our dietary guidelines are still commercially driven.

After watching the video, I pulled up the following information on Wikipedia:

Nathan Pritikin (August 29, 1915 – February 21, 1985) was an American nutritionist and longevity research pioneer. Pritikin was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the University of Chicago from 1933 to 1935 but did not achieve a degree. He became an inventor in the fields of chemistry, physics, and electronics in Chicago and Santa Barbara, California.[1]

Diagnosed with heart disease in the 1950s, he engaged in a low-fat diet that was high in unrefined carbohydrates along with a moderate aerobic exercise regime.[2][3] His dietary and exercise regime became known as “The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise” in a book co-authored by science writer Patrick M. McGrady, Jr., which stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for 52 weeks and sold millions of copies.

When his own disease improved substantially, he established the Pritikin Longevity Center in 1976 and served as its director. Now called the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa, it offers controlled diet, counseling in lifestyle change and exercise in a resort/spa-type setting. Pritikin also served as chairman of the Pritikin Research Foundation.

In the early 1980s, he began to suffer severe pain and complications related to his decades-long fight with leukemia, which had been in remission for 27 years.[4][5] He committed suicide on February 21, 1985.[6]

Shortly after his death, there was an article about him in People Magazine that featured a quote by another dietary visionary.  “He was always in charge of his life. It rather followed he’d want to be in charge of his death,” says friend and follower Senator George McGovern. “Suicide is never a pleasant course, but in Nathan’s case ,once he felt life wasn’t worth living, that would be it.” The article (see link below) is a good read and provides an interesting look into the background of this special individual.

Dr. William Castelli, one of the medical "establishment" leaders who had great respect for Nathan Pritikin

Dr. William Castelli, one of the medical “establishment” leaders who had great respect for Nathan Pritikin

The article pointed out that Dr. William Castelli (Director of the Framingham Study) was one of few in the medical profession that gave Mr. Pritikin the credit that he deserved, saying that he was definitely “barking up the right tree.” Some people believed that had he lived, he would have been the first layman to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine—without ever earning a college degree in anything. A little Pritikin background from the People article:

The son of a Chicago sign salesman, Pritikin was already a millionaire before he tackled nutrition. Forced during the Depression to drop out of the University of Chicago, he became a free-lance inventor, developing a host of patents in physics, chemistry and electrical engineering for such giants as Bendix and Honeywell. “Nathan was a great researcher, a genius who was able to see clearly through mazes of information and come to conclusions that others overlooked,” says Rosenthal. Indeed, after the autopsy, Dr. Steven Inkeles of the Pritikin Center said the medical examiner was astounded at the superb condition of Pritikin’s heart. “He had the arteries,” says Inkeles, “of a preadolescent boy.” Even in death, Pritikin showed there is a better way to live.

Dr. Campbell's new book

Dr. Campbell’s new book

The Bottom Line. The visionary leaders of his day, like Senator George McGovern and Dr. William Castelli knew that Nathan Pritikin was on the right track back in the early 80’s. Yet today, his visionary truths about nutrition are still virtually unknown by most people—including the medical and nutritional “experts.”

As Dr. T. Colin Campbell sums it up in the Introduction to his new book WHOLE (to be released on May 7, 2013), the “establishment” is no closer to accepting the truth about nutrition than it was at the time of Pritikin’s death, 28 years ago:

If you want to live free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes for your entire life, that power is in your hands (and your knife and fork). But, sadly, medical schools, hospitals, and government health agencies continue to treat nutrition as if it plays only a minor role in health.

Consecutive daily blogs

Consecutive daily blogs

But there is some good news to report—and you can read all about it in my blog about the Perfect Storm for Fixing Healthcare. (See first link below) The stars are lining up like they never have before and with enough people joining the grassroots revolution, we should be able to get some good traction in the next five or ten years. Nothing is more important! As Dr. Campbell says in his new book, “No less than our future as a species hangs in the balance.”

Handy 4-piece take-charge-of-your-health kit—from

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J. Morris Hicks, working daily to promote health, hope and harmony on planet Earth.

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Blogging daily at…from the seaside village of Stonington, Connecticut – Be well and have a great day.

—J. Morris Hicks, board member, T. Colin Campbell Foundation

About J. Morris Hicks

A former strategic management consultant and senior corporate executive with Ralph Lauren in New York, J. Morris Hicks has always focused on the "big picture" when analyzing any issue. In 2002, after becoming curious about our "optimal diet," he began a study of what we eat from a global perspective ---- discovering many startling issues and opportunities along the way. In addition to an MBA and a BS in Industrial Engineering, he holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, where he has also been a member of the board of directors since 2012. Having concluded that our food choices hold the key to the sustainability of our civilization, he has made this his #1 priority---exploring all avenues for influencing humans everywhere to move back to the natural plant-based diet for our species.
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5 Responses to Pritikin—College dropout who could’ve won the Nobel Prize

  1. Paul says:

    I first read one of Pritikin’s books in 89 & immediately changed my diet. No more candy, soda pop & fried foods since. I still ate a bit of meat & dairy. In about 3 weeks, my total cholesterol dropped 70 points & I understood what feeling good really was. I gave up meat & dairy in 95. I’m in my early 50’s now and feel well. Not perfect, but certainly not SAD! I recently saw a sign at my local Kroger’s that stated “Enjoy the convenience of auto refill” for prescriptions. I could only think that I enjoy the convenience of no prescriptions! So glad I opted out of the western lifestyle all those years ago.

  2. John Benjamin Sciarra says:

    It doesn’t take a genius or a Nobel Prize winner to “get” this vegetarian diet idea—or does it? Albert Einstein, considered by most people to be a genius, turned to a vegetarian diet later in life. One quotation attributed to Einstein is, “So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way. It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.” The source: appears well-documented along with a few other interesting quotes on diet.

  3. Leo S. says:

    Since 2010 the Pritikin Program and the Ornish Program have been covered by Medicare because they save almost $30,000 per person. The patient lives better and longer, the insurance company still gets their premiums and the government continues to get taxes as long as the person lives. A win-win-win situation. Too bad people don’t know about and consume whole-plant diets when they are young so they might be able to prevent many of the conditions that afflict the general population.

    Here is a link titled Back to Basics which people might find worth viewing.

    • As I document in my book, I credit the Pritikin Longevity Center with saving–or extending–my life: I would have died in my mid 50s (like all males on my fathers side). Now I’m 80, and with a changed lifestyle of exercise and Pritikin-based nutrition, I teach other over-75s how to live longer better. I’ve been to Pritikin 4 times since 1989, and plan to go again fairly regularly for refreshers. Yes, Nathan Pritikin was genuinely gifted: and his son carried on his legacy for awhile. They have several books published between them.

  4. Jim – Excellent blog looking at Nathan Pritikin’s legacy!

    Here I am at 4:00 AM Pacific compiling a good DVD video/DVD-ROM project on Pritikin! I’ll have the 1982 McD interview and the 1978 summary talk by Pritikin on the DVD. I am putting main subject chapter links on both items so that the contents are easily jumped to as desired.

    Here is the link to part one of the on-line YouTube six parts of his 1978 52-minute summary talk overviewing his four weeks of lectures given during his health clinics:

    After I get the DVD done, I’ll put the video in my “Dropbox” site and the video can be down-loaded to the viewer’s computer!

    Oh — here is the link to a 1991 interview of Pritikin’s son, Robert Pritikin, by Dr. Neal Barnard in the May 1991 issue of the “Vegetarian Times” magazine:

    You are on-target — he deserves a Nobel Prize for his life’s contributions to our much better health via evidence-based optimal nutrition and avoiding harmful medical treatments!

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