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Nathan Pritikin

Runners Need To Watch Diet

Published November 16, 1998, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

Dr. Nathan Pritikin was the conscience of American running on nutrition matters. He created controversy by writing "Run and Die on the American Diet", blaming the death of many famous runners on their poor diet. Pritikin's last book, "Diet for Runners," contains recommendations for a healthy nutrition for runners.

The lifestyle of the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico inspired Pritikin's dietary guidelines. The Tarahumaras were accomplished endurance runners who ran hundreds of miles per week. They suffered an extremely low incidence of the ills of western society, namely heart disease and cancer.

The Tarahumara diet is a low-fat diet, consisting primarily of grains and vegetables. Although they are a hunting tribe, their diet contains little fat and protein, and relied primarily on complex carbohydrates.

Pritikin's diet for runners is built around "Seven Survival Staples:" brown rice, baked beans, simmered chicken, tomato vegetable stew, sour cream, berry-apple compote, and frozen bananas. Although they make an odd combination, the Seven Survival Staples satisfy the nutritional needs of endurance athletes.

The seven staples are at the core of Pritikin's plan, and not the entire diet. They provide grains and pulses for energy, protein for tissue repair, dairy for bone maintenance, vegetables for minerals and fiber, and fruits for vitamins. Runners are free to substitute similar foods, and to augment their diet with green salads and fresh fruits.

In designing a plan that meets personal preferences, you should be mindful of these guidelines:

The over-riding consideration in planning a Pritikin-style diet is to limit the intake of fat and protein to under ten percent of total calories each, and to eat the remaining eighty percent of calories from carbohydrates.

A typical day on the Pritikin diet starts with a bowl of cereal in skim milk, topped with fresh fruits. Bagels, English muffins and toasted bread supply additional energy. Once a week, eggs and pancakes can add variety to breakfast.

While western society glorifies a large dinner, Pritikin recommends lunch as the main meal. The daily serving of protein may consist of low-fat baked chicken or turkey breast, lean beef, or broiled fish. Baked potatoes, rice, pasta and bread supply complex carbohydrates. An ample serving of steamed vegetables and a fresh salad provide vitamins and fiber. A baked apple, stuffed with cinnamon and raisins and topped with fat-free frozen yogurt seals the meal.

Dinner is a repeat of lunch, minus the protein. Endurance athletes know first-hand that the more complex carbohydrates, the merrier. Runners who avoid heavy dinners sleep well at night, and run better in the morning.

Eating whenever you are hungry is a good practice. Bread, bagels, Granola bars and fruits make excellent snacks in between meals, and prevent wild swings in blood sugar levels.

Finally, no diet is complete without a reminder on proper hydration. Drink at least eight glasses of fresh water each day. The Pritikin diet recommends against drinking caffeinated or sweetened beverages, and advises moderation with fruit juices.

Height-challenged individuals may control their weights by adjusting their intake of starch and vegetables in the Pritikin diet. Eat less starch and more vegetables to lose weight.

Although his work had a direct impact on the dietary recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration, Pritikin died without the satisfaction of witnessing a change in societal attitudes towards eating.

The American diet remains one of the worst in the world, accounting for a high occurrence of heart disease and cancer. Each year, runners die from heart failure while running. For most victims, diet, not running, is the killer.

Kamal Jabbour lives by the Pritikin diet, except on special occasions and PR's. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at

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