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The Promise

The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, which hit the best-seller list in 1979, is the granddaddy of diet books.

Its ideas -- that eating low-fat, high-fiber foods and getting regular exercise can stave off or even reverse heart disease and help people stay at a healthy weight -- were considered downright shocking.

Now, those ideas are considered standard.

What You Can Eat

There are 10 simple steps to The Pritikin Edge.

  1. Start each meal with soup, salad, fruit, or whole grains. They fill you up, so you're less likely to eat high-fat, high-calorie food.
  2. No more high-calorie drinks, especially soda. A daily glass of wine can be good for the heart, but skip most alcoholic beverages.
  3. Avoid high-calorie foods.
  4. Snack at set times and only on healthy foods.
  5. Choose whole, unprocessed foods as often as possible, and always avoid fast food.
  6. Exercise regularly, combining lots of walking with strength training.
  7. Go easy on meat, especially red meat. Instead, opt for fatty fish like salmon.
  8. Skip extra salt.
  9. Don’t smoke.
  10. Ease stress.

The overall diet is low in fat and high in fiber. The recommended foods are fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and fish.

Items to minimize include oils, refined sugars, salt, and refined grains. The plan recommends avoiding processed meats, foods high in saturated fat and those made with trans fat, and high-cholesterol foods like eggs.

Level of Effort: Medium to High

Much of this advice may be familiar. But it is a low-fat plan that limits oils and doesn't give you much room for favorite indulgences.

Limitations: Fast food and soda are no-nos. Processed foods, alcohol, and red meat are limited.

Cooking and shopping: The diet centers on readily available fresh foods, so it’s easy to plan, shop for, and cook meals. If you're not comfortable cooking, you'll have a learning curve, since convenience foods are not recommended on this plan.

Packaged foods or meals: No.

In-person meetings: No.

Exercise: The authors recommend walking daily, and adding strength training, stretching, and more cardiovascular exercise to your weekly routine.

Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?

Vegetarian or vegan: This diet can easily work for vegetarians, as it recommends plant protein sources more frequently than animal sources. If you're vegan, you can swap dairy for soy milk or other nondairy beverages. Still, modifying some of the recipes may be tricky.

Low-fat diet: It emphasizes filling up on healthy foods like salads, soups, fruits, fish, and whole grains, so the Pritikin approach is low in fat. Most food recommendations and recipes have little saturated fat.

Gluten-free: The diet suggests many gluten-free carbohydrates, like quinoa and oatmeal. So you could modify it to be gluten-free. You’ll have to read food labels carefully.

What Else You Should Know

Cost: If doing it on your own, none beyond your shopping.

Support: You can do this diet yourself. Pritikin also offers online support -- including private online journals, prerecorded workshops, and consultations with dietitians -- for fees ranging from around $10 a month to $400 a year. You can also go to the Florida-based Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, where prices typically start at $3,750 a week.

What Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, Says:

Does It Work?

Yes, it can help you lose weight. The Pritikin diet is low in fat, high in fiber, and mainly features healthy foods.

It's also heart-healthy. A Washington University School of Medicine study found that the Pritikin Program lowers many risk factors for heart disease, including weight (measured by body mass index, or BMI) and blood pressure. Other studies have shown the same thing.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

Studies show the Pritikin diet can help reverse heart disease, lower bloodcholesterol and blood pressure, and result in weight loss. Many people following the plan have been able to cut back on medications and use the diet and exercise program to help manage their condition.

Consult your doctor before starting the plan, and don't cut back on any medications without your doctor's approval.

The Final Word

This very structured plan is ideal for anyone with heart disease who is willing to make most of their meals and get regular physical activity.

The diet is not practical for many people. One of the biggest limitations is feeling satisfied and sticking to this very low-fat diet.

Red-meat lovers, exercise haters, anyone with a sweet tooth, and people who like fatty foods will have a hard time on this plan. A glass of wine at dinner is about the only allowable splurge.

WebMD Diet A-Z

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