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Pritikin Son Carries On Crusade : A Firm Believer in Diet's Influence on Heart Health

September 09, 1986|MICHAEL BALTER | Balter lives in Los Angeles. and

Just before health and fitness crusader Nathan Pritikin killed himself in an Albany, N.Y., hospital in February, 1985, he was on the telephone with his son Robert in California. The elder Pritikin, who was suffering from terminal leukemia, "asked me what I would do if he died," Robert recalled.

Despite his son's protest that he still had a lot of years left, Nathan Pritikin outlined various future plans for his nationwide health program. "He gave me no inkling of what was going to happen," Robert said. "We even cracked a few jokes."

2,000 Condolence Calls

An hour later, Nathan Pritikin was dead. Within the next two weeks, according to estimates by Pritikin officials, more than 2,000 condolence calls came into the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica. And soon after, more than 700 people packed into the center for a memorial service, at which former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern eulogized Pritikin as a man who "boldly asserted" his beliefs "in the face of official skepticism, public ridicule and professional rejection."

Today, as director of Pritikin Programs Inc. and head of the Pritikin Research Foundation, Robert Pritikin, 35, is his father's anointed successor. He has inherited the leadership of an almost messianic campaign to turn the tide against heart disease and other degenerative diseases through a strict regimen of diet and exercise.

Robert Pritikin seems very different from his crusader father. Whereas the elder Pritikin was intense and single-minded, Robert exudes a playful, easygoing charm. Yet when he speaks about his efforts to carry on his father's work, he turns very serious, discussing the latest research into the causes of heart disease with impressive expertise.

Wilma Keller, former development director of the Pritikin Research Foundation and one-time secretary to Nathan Pritikin, said, "Nathan was an idealist, a visionary, whereas Robert is a pragmatist, pretty much nuts and bolts. Where Nathan had a vision, Robert is carrying forth that vision."

Nathan Pritikin's vision--that heart disease and other degenerative diseases could be prevented and possibly even cured--is now shared by most members of the medical profession. But Pritikin's recommended diet, which is very low in both fat and protein while high in complex carbohydrates, was controversial when first proposed in the early '70s. In recent years, however, health professionals have become increasingly convinced that good eating habits can reduce the risk of disease, and the Pritikin program has remained popular while many other fad diets have faded into oblivion.

Since his father's death, Robert has worked to continue projects already on the drawing board as well as developing some of his own. As head of the Pritikin Research Foundation, he oversees a number of research efforts designed to gather evidence in support of the Pritikin program. Recently, for example, he has been involved in a study with Dr. Peter Dau of Evanston, Ill., investigating whether the atherosclerotic plaques obstructing the coronary arteries of heart patients can be reduced by filtering cholesterol out of blood through a process called plasmaphoresis.

'Very Diplomatic'

Dau, head of the division of immunology at Evanston Hospital and an associate professor at Northwestern University's School of Medicine, said Robert's role in the study is to manage patient diet and exercise programs. "Robert is very diplomatic in dealing with all the physicians," Dau says. "He can talk to them on their own level. And he's very enthusiastic, and has a very good effect on the patients."

Robert also speaks proudly of a joint venture he and other Pritikin officials recently negotiated with Los Angeles-based Maxicare, the nation's largest publicly held health maintenance organization. Under the arrangement, the Pritikin operation is expanding into a nationwide network of health centers, and Robert says he hopes the relationship with Maxicare will eventually lead to insurance reimbursement for patients whose doctors refer them to a Pritikin center.

Robert Pritikin, the oldest of Nathan and Ilene Pritikin's four children, was only 4 years old when the family moved to Santa Barbara from Chicago in 1955. Nathan started an electronics business, eventually developing numerous patents for corporations such as General Electric, Honeywell and Bendix. He began to develop his health program in the late '50s when he was diagnosed as having heart disease. After studying the eating habits of societies with low heart disease rates, he concluded that the ideal diet was one in which 10% of the calories came from fat, 10% from protein and 80% from complex carbohydrates such as those found in grains and vegetables. This is a radical departure from the typical American diet, which ranges between 40% and 45% fat.

Father's Research Assistant

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