Running isn’t my favorite exercise, but here on the heard-packed sand of Miami Beach, after the sun rises out of the ocean and before the mercury rises above 80, it’s exhilarating, and it’s how I begin each day of my stay at the Pritikin Longevity Center.
Right after my run, I get my “vital” checked (weight, blood pressure and pulse). Later on, I push through monitored exercises, aquatics and low-impact aerobic dance, worked into a tight schedule of lectures, video presentations, stress-reduction sessions and cooking school. For this is no ordinary spa, people by health fanatics already in great shape or sybarites enjoying mud packs and salt rubs. This is where people come to work hard, eat carefully and learn how to change their habits in the hope of giving themselves a better shot at a longer life.
The emphasis at Pritikin is distinctly medical, and at least half of the visitors are here because of serious health problems, especially heart disease and diabetes – or precursors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. Some come at their doctor’s suggestion. Others come in spite of their doctor’s disbelief.
The late Nathan Pritikin, who founded his first longevity center in California, devised a low-fat diet and exercise program to cleanse his own clogged arteries. He was neither a physician nor a nutritionist, but a smart engineer who made his way adroitly through the medical literature, translating what was known about the prevalence of heart disease and the influence of lifestyle into a cohesive program. His controversial book, The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise (Grosset and Dunlap, 1979), was a best-seller. Pritikin’s life ended in suicide in 1985 after he developed leukemia – but an autopsy did reveal that his arteries were free of fatty deposits.
The Lean, Clean Diet
In recent years the American Heart Association has issued dietary guidelines that recognize the importance of diet in disease prevention. But its recommendation to limit dietary fat to 30 percent of total calories doesn’t approach the Pritikin ideal of less than 10 percent fat. The 10 percent fat diet isn’t unhealthy; it’s just difficult to achieve, given our national eating habits. Pritikin disciples hold that excess fat is the major problem in the average Western diet, since fat contains more than twice as many calories per ounce as protein or carbohydrate and because a high-fat diet contributes to heart disease and some types of cancer. Essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins abound naturally in vegetables, grains and beans, according to the Pritikin Resource Book for program participants, so there is no need to clog your diet or your arteries with added fats via the likes of mayonnaise, cooking oil or fatty meats.
Towards that end, breakfast at the center begins with a fat-free bran muffin and a choice of several hot or dry cereals, all sugar-free. (Refined sugars, including honey, stand accused here of upsetting the body’s energy balance – creating temporary bursts quickly followed by slumps – and of being the sugars most likely to be stored as body fat. The unrefined sugars in fruit, milk and simple carbohydrates provide sweetness enough for the Pritikin lifestyle. Artificial sweeteners are shunned because it has been reported that they pose potential long-term hazards and may increase one’s craving for sweets.)
Since whole milk owes half its calories to fat, only skim milk, nonfat yogurt and low-fat cottage cheese are allowed. There’s no fruit juice served at the center, although you can put banana and raisins on your cereal and enjoy half a grapefruit or a sliced orange. “Fruit juices,” explain staff, dietitians who patrol the dining room to answer questions, “have little fiber and go down very quickly. It’s better to eat whole fruit and drink spring water if you’re thirsty.”
Sorry, there’s nothing but herbal tea and cereal substitutes that resemble coffee in color only. (Some of us would rather not brink any beverage in the morning than gag on a cup of Bambu or Dacopa.) Caffeine, the most popular drug in the United States, according to the center, has been associated with heart irregularities, fibrocystic breast disease, birth defects, increased heart-attack incidence, stress, higher cholesterol levels and decreased blood flow to the brain. Decaffeinated coffee is only slightly less suspect, since the chemicals and processes used to get caffeine out may put other undesirable elements in.
Like many of my companions, I lost most of my first day at the center to a caffeine withdrawal headache. I usually drink two or three cups a day of good, strong coffee, and stopping cold turkey left me so lethargic that I often fell asleep in the lectures. (Nobody had warned me to cut back on caffeine before my arrival.) When I felt sorry for myself, though, I had only to look around at several other newcomers who were not only dropping coffee but quitting smoking and having their first brush with a near-vegetarian diet.
Although the lifetime plan allows for there to four ounces of animal protein a day, the therapeutic program at the center doesn’t include more than four ounces of animal protein per week. That’s a portion of salmon about the size of a silver dollar, or a smattering of seafood on a basically vegetable paella. (“Look at this clam,” a dentist exclaims over the paella. “Have you ever seen such a tiny clam? I wonder if it really is a clam.”) The diet is low-calorie too (about 1,000 a day for women), but the meals are extremely filling. No one walks away from a meal feeling hungry. You may crave a before-dinner drink or after-dinner mint, but you certainly are stuffed after eating an enormous beautifully prepared salad, topped with oil-free dressing, a generous helping of Basque vegetable stew served over brown rice with the vegetable du jour and an elegant dessert like poached pears with strawberry sauce. Entering the program at 143 pounds, I wasn’t a candidate for weight loss, but I dropped down to 134 in spite of eating five meals a day.
A common complaint is that the food produces an awful lot of gas – particularly the bean soups served at snack time. A staff physician assures us that after we’ve eaten Pritikin-style for about four months, our bodies will adjust to the high doses of legumes and even our bowel movements will smell inoffensive. He follows the diet closely, he says, except for an occasional hamburger and a whole chocolate pie on his birthday. Every staff member I questioned also claimed to follow the diet “85 to 90 percent.” Indeed, many of them work long hours and frequently take their meals at the center, with gusto.
If I worked here, instead of at my desk 1,500 miles away, I wouldn’t foresee any problems eating this food, either. But the prospect of mastering the techniques required to follow the diet at home, from sautéing in defatted chicken broth to seasoning without salt, is daunting. (And how would my family fare without pizza or peanut butter?) That is why so much time is devoted to nutrition lectures and cooking classes, where we learn to make omelets without butter or margarine or, in fact, eggs yolks.
Getting someone to relinquish lifetime eating habits takes instruction and support. Everyone on the staff provides some measure of this, not to mention the clinical psychologist who addresses us daily on topics such as re-establishing priorities, creating a positive way of thinking, staying in control of eating; understanding how our new way of life will affect others at home and practicing relaxation techniques. (She also meets every afternoon with the smokers among us, teaching that smoking is an addiction best ended by stopping abruptly and offering behavior-modification strategies to keep cigarettes at bay.) The one-two- or three-week stay at the center is only the beginning of a commitment to a permanent lifestyle change.
Pritikin staffers claim, on the basis of published studies of the first participants in the 26-day program, that cholesterol and triglyceride levels were each lowered an average of 25 percent by program’s end, that more than 90 percent of the diabetics on oral drugs left with no need of drugs and that overweight women lost an average of seven pounds (13 on average for men).
Several people in my group are here on a return mission or an annual “refresher” visit that revs up their flagging motivation. We are also joined by graduates who live nearby and dine at the center regularly, as well as by the Pritikin P.M. Program participants, who take evening courses in Pritikin philosophy and work out in the gym, then enjoy a late dinner.
A Fit Heart
Exercise, the other major component of the Pritikin plan is a fairly easy sell in these fitness-conscious days, when no one blinks at a well-dressed businessperson wearing jogging shoes with a suit. We are exhorted to exert ourselves for our heart’s sake. Exercise reduces stress, we are told, burns fat, firms muscles, including the heart, and raises the blood level of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), which help carry arterial plaques, and “bad” cholesterol out of the body. But, predictably, the Pritikin prescription goes far beyond any standard 20-minutes-three-times-a-week formula.
To arrive at a safe level of exercise, I had to take an early-morning stress test on my first day here. A medical assistant taped electrodes all over my upper body, connected their wires to the electrocardiogram machine and had me walk briskly on a treadmill as the belt spun faster and it grade got steeper. That was hard work, making me sweat enough to nearly wash off some of the electrodes. The doctor stopped the test after 14 minutes, when my heart rate was at 160 – somewhat shy of my maximum heart rate, which is calculated at 220 minus my age (41), or 179 beats per minute.
The exercise director then set my “target heart rate” at 125 to 145 beats per minute. A good program of aerobic exercise for me would push my heart into that range (my pulse is normally about 72) for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. On the intervening days, exercising a little less strenuously but for a longer period should set my heart rate. For the rest of my life, altering “hard days” with “easy days” is supposed to confer all the benefits of exercise while reducing the risk of injury.
I don’t have to worry about my blood pressure because it’s low (90 over 60 on an average day), but many of the others must have a physiologist record their blood pressure as a prelude to, and at intervals during, exercise. Every precaution is taken to safeguard the heart. The rest of the body is respectfully stretched out, warmed up and cooled down.
Working out and eating healthfully isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But I chose to do this for myself. I am healthy and I want to stay that way.