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Wellness Week: Pritikin

It’s January and dangled before us are endless tabloid takes on wellness and weight-loss habits, hollow advice that does very little to actually thin our thighs. As an antidote, we wired our scout, former Luxury SpaFinder Magazine editor-in-chief Gary Walther, for a week at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, one of the country’s most serious centers for well-being. Gary knows more about the science and practice of wellness and weight loss—and what really works—than almost any civilian. And most practitioners. During his tenure at Luxury SpaFinder, he test-drove Canyon Ranch, Golden Door, Chiva Som and dozens of other destination and resort spas. But it was his visit to Pritikin that changed his life. His weeklong report, with daily updates, is a Cliff Notes on what the center offers, and what it might offer you.


In September 2005 I spent five days at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, and it changed my life. When I arrived I weighed 180 lbs., and although I jogged regularly, my BMI was pushing 27 (over 25 is considered overweight), I had a throw-pillow paunch, and my blood pressure was 130 over 80, not bad in America today but actually not great. I looked fitter than I was.

Five months later I had lost 16 pounds by hewing loosely to the Pritikin diet: moderate animal protein, lots of low calorie-dense foods, minimal salt and unrefined carbs (that’s everything in the cookie, cracker, and snack aisle). I also upped my cardio and weight routines based on the fitness classes I took there. The weight just slid off in twos and threes.

When people asked how I did it, I extolled Pritikin with one big caveat: The facility. Then Pritikin inhabited a former yacht club in the northern Miami suburb of Aventura. The place was dowdy and dated, especially the spa. One woman turned her daily afternoon fitness walk into a trip to the Fairmont Hotel (a good hike away) just to use its spa.

On campus at Doral, in Miami

Well, I have no reservations now. I came down to Pritikin to spend a week checking out its new home in the Doral Golf Resort & Spa and it’s “night and day,” the expression several veteran guests have used to describe the change.

Opened here in December, Pritikin occupies the resort’s spa building, which has been handsomely renovated to accommodate it. The building is dominated by a four-story atrium. The walls in the ground-floor public areas are done in Keystone Coral, bone-white limestone full of fossilized coral and marine shells. It’s bright, textured, and forms a suave foil for the leather couches and chairs where guests relax between appointments. The spa has 32 treatment rooms, the gym is spacious, the aerobic and yoga studios spare and modern, and the guest rooms have gone from neo-dormitory to Marriott-luxe. (Marriott owns the Doral.)

What I like about the Pritikin eating plan—and it is a plan, not a diet—is that it’s not gimmicky. It’s about eating natural, unrefined foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Yes, without all that salt dishes can seem a bit bland, but salt is on the “Most Unwanted List” here and later this week I’ll explain why. Your tastebuds also start to adapt—and to wake up to the other flavors in food. And it’s not just plain-Jane dishes: Among the recipes that have worked for me are a vegetarian pizza, a piquant Lebanese lentil soup, and a 50-calorie crab cake.

Given all this, isn’t it odd that the name of my consulting physician for the week is Dr. Sugar?

Day Two at Pritikin, Afternoon

Time to embrace the bean. Or what I learned about lowering cholesterol

Beans, a cholesterol-fighter. (This dish is meant to approximate a delicious bean salad served at Beppe.)

This morning I said I’d share a few tips that I picked up in a nutrition seminar with Gayl Canfield at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa on how to reduce your bad cholesterol. Lest you think it’s just a Men’s Health coverline, women—even quite young ones—can have high levels of bad, artery-clogging cholesterol, too. And they do, according to the American Heart Association, which says the disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.

Five cholesterol-reduction tips:

Eat Oatmeal, not Fiber One cereal The former consists of water-soluble fiber, which actually kidnaps cholesterol and spirits it out of the body through the kidneys. Fiber One is made of bran, which isn’t water soluble and doesn’t have a cholesterol grudge.

Substitute vegetable protein for animal protein Think beans, beans, and more beans. And tofu. And to a lesser extent nuts and seeds because they’re packed with calories.

Eat animal protein only every other day, if you can’t go the PETA route. More on what I learned about animal protein, below.

Take Metamucil It also rids the body of cholesterol. But it must be taken before lunch and dinner, so it’s in the bloodstream ready to pounce.

Eat your veggies Studies confirm the role of plant sterols, chemicals found in vegetables and in supplements, play in lowering bad cholesterol.

The last two items each give you a reduction of about 5 percent. Not major but every bit counts. It’s following the first three tips that really make a difference. Pritikin has a fact sheet on this here.

just say no to haute barnyard and pork belly
Since my liver makes all the cholesterol I need, it's bye-bye Haute Barnyard cuisine. (And hello Beano.)

And a couple good-to-know facts:

Cholesterol is in and triggered by animal products. But not plants, whether peanut butter or avocado. So you can wave over the guacamole-at-your-table cart. (It’s the chips that are a problem.)

Newsflash: The liver makes all the cholesterol the body requires. All of it. That puts eating meat into stark perspective: I’m getting a bump in cholesterol with my reservations at The Spotted Pig. Sigh.

Some good news: I’m down two pounds. That’s probably just water-weight loss. The food here is so low in salt that your body starts to give up retained water, because it doesn’t need as much to balance the sodium level. (FYI: That’s also why you run to the loo so often after a day here. Or is that TMI?)


Day Two, Morning

Pritikin’s entrance exams: You don’t need a pen.
But you can bet there’s a stopwatch. And in my case, lots of electrodes

The first two days here are a lot like college: getting your schedule organized, deciding on the early (7:30am) or late (9:30am) cardio session, and figuring out the lay of the land.

First thing yesterday was the blood draw for the battery of tests that Pritikin does to establish important baselines (cholesterol, blood sugar etc.).

• After breakfast I hit the gym and met with my personal trainer, Scott Dangan, who in a half hour diagnostic workout gave me four new weight exercises to increase the lateral-stability muscles in my hips and legs. (My weakness.)

• In the early afternoon I went over the medical questionnaire every guest fills out with Dr. Sugar. I will meet with him again on Thursday to hear the results of the blood test and ultrasound vascular test, which measures carotid arterial plaque and the strength of the heart, as well as the sleep apnea test he prescribed after looking at my questionnaire (not all of these test are included in the rates).

• According to Dr. Sugar, a sleep specialist, although I don’t fit the profile for apnea (blockage of the air passage during sleep), I do have several symptoms (waking up frequently, snoring). So last night I went to bed wired up like a lab animal. That gel used to stick the electrodes to your skull gives you serious bedhead by morning.

•Right after meeting with Dr. Sugar I did the cardio-metabolic stress test, which reveals your cardio fitness level. One reason I’ve worked so hard on cardio these past few years is that my dad died of a heart attack at 55, and I wanted to slay the “it’s hereditary” demon. The cardio test is done by gradually increasing the speed and elevation of a treadmill until you say “uncle.” The cardiograph ran out of paper first. Can I relax now?

• Today I had a biomechanical musculoskeletal exam (say that twice) with the incredibly brilliant Frank Musumeci. He identifies limitations in joints and musculature and recommends stretches and exercises to help. I’m still doing stretches he prescribed me five years ago.

• And finally, at day’s end, Scott gave me a DEXA bone density and body composition test, which diagnoses osteoporosis and reveals that all important vanity number, percent body fat.

Once my seven or so tests are taken, the day falls into an alternation of fitness classes and seminars. What you learn in the latter is a big motivator to keep up the former—for example, the best way to increase high-density lipoprotein (the good cholesterol) is exercise.

Wine drinking also helps and you can bet I will exploit this loophole right up to the outer threshold of “moderate intake.”

The guests here are split about 50-50 male/female, with a lot of couples and a lot of women visiting together. There is a scattering of under 40s, but most people are older. (I never thought about any of this stuff when I was in my 30s.) Weight loss is the number one reason people come, according to Pritikin head Paul Lehr, with most guests looking to drop five to 20 pounds. The average stay is two weeks, although I had lunch with one woman today who is here for a month, her second visit.

Later today, I’ll post some really practical cholesterol-reduction tips that I just learned in a nutrition seminar with Gayl Canfield. Stay tuned to the nutrition channel…


Day Three: The dish on salt

His title is nutrition research specialist. But, at Pritikin, Dr. James Kenney is actually the in-house special prosecutor for salt. You know how he feels about the substance from the title of his lecture I just attended: “Salt and Toxicity.”

Salt, says Kenney, is the great villain of contemporary American health, indicting it for high blood pressure (hypertension) and its direct consequences, most strokes and incidences of heart failure. It’s also a co-conspirator in every other disease of affluence (those caused by diet and lifestyle as opposed to bacteria): obesity, diabetes, other forms of heart disease, common cancers, and Alzheimer’s. It’s especially damaging to the kidneys, which says Kenney, are just not designed to handle a lot of salt.

“Salt kills more people in America today than anything else,” he says, pointing out that more prescriptions are written for blood-pressure medicines than any other class of drugs—“with a cure rate of zero,” Kenney adds acerbically.

Salt isn’t bad per se. It occurs naturally in some foods: Celery has the most of any vegetable but don’t stop eating it. You’d have to consume a pound to get 400mgs of salt. By eating a healthy diet, most people would get all the salt they need, 600-900 mgs., which is well below the daily allowance of 1,500 mgs recommended by the Centers for Disease Control just 10 months ago.

Learn more about passing on salt: Interact with Dr. Kenney on a live Pritikin Center webcast on Thurs., Jan. 24 at 4PM

Yet the average American is pretty salty: She takes in 4,000 mg-plus daily, with bread products accounting for almost one-third of that. (Goodbye redundant salt bagel.)

The problem is that salt is insidious. You can escape tobacco by not smoking and minimize cholesterol by changing your diet. But salt is in almost every processed food—80 percent of the salt consumed in America, according to Kenney, is added to food. If you threw away your salt shaker, you would only decrease your sodium intake by 10 percent.

“You have to be really motivated to reduce salt intake on your own,” he says.

Here’s what you can do:

Practice the 1:1 Rule: The amount of sodium in milligrams should be equal to or less than the calories per serving. Now go read the labels in the whole wheat bread section of your supermarket and you’ll be astonished. (The corollary: The healthier sounding the name, the higher the sodium content.)

• Kenney recommends you eat Ezekiel bread (available at Trader Joe’s in NY) and the small whole wheat pitas from a Florida bakery company, Toufayan. (Go to the site to find the markets in the city that carry it.)

Scrutinize low-sodium foods in particular. A lot of them flunk the 1:1 test.

• When dining out, tell the waiter you don’t want your food salted. Chefs are accessories to the crime in Kenney’s view because they use the shaker liberally. (You could also renounce restaurants, as Kenney has done, but c’mon, life is for livin’.)

Don’t kid yourself about sea salt: It’s caused high blood pressure in lab rats just as table salt does.

Give up Chinese takeout, smoked fish, pickled foods. Ditto for all of those heat-and-serve dinners.

The trouble is we love salt, especially as we age and taste buds dull. For most guests the toughest aspect of staying at Pritikin is the radical reduction in salt intake: You get 1,200 mgs daily here, so the food can taste bland. (That’s why there’s a big pepper mill on every table.)

On the other hand, the perils of salt come through clearly when you compare your incoming and outgoing blood pressure. Last time I stayed at Pritikin, mine dropped 10 points on each side. Even more dramatic was the testimony of a man in Kenney’s salt lecture. Five days ago, he said, his blood pressure was 140/80; that day it had dropped to 90/60. That puts him even below the rail-thin Kenney, whose blood pressure is 100/60. That’s a solid reason to pass on the salt.

Stay tuned for my expose on high- and low-density calories later.


Day Four: Getting smart about calorie density

Pritikin calls most cereals "breakfast candy" because they lack whole grains and contain loads of salt and sugar

I realize I’m getting into the Pritikin frame of mind. I’m reminded of Charles Delafuente’s piece in the Times earlier this week about hotels and airlines giving out chocolate chip cookies as a perk for travelers. Where is the reporting, I thought? No mention of calories per cookie, no comment from a nutritionist on the downside. Just copy like this: “’I like it a lot,’ Stephan Spencer of Madison, Wis., said of the airborne treats….”

Not that Pritikin is holier-than-thou about eating. One big tip Pritikin offers is to eat foods that are low in calories and big on volume—hot cereal, fresh fruits, chopped vegetable salads, air-popped popcorn (sans salt and butter)—because they fill you up fairly quickly, and consequently you don’t eat as much. Here are a few things I learned about the concept of calorie density:

Calorie-dense foods represent a lot of calories for just a few bites and don’t fill you up. A good example is one chicken McNugget at 80 calories.

Foods that are not calorie-dense are low in calories given their volume and usually score high on the satiety index, such as a bowl of vegetarian lentil soup, also 80 calories.

The highest satiety score of any food? The humble baked potato, which to my surprise is allowed here. (Sour cream is not.)

• Refined foods are especially calorie-dense because the refining process strips away water, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients leaving you with just the calories. A calorie McNugget!

Here’s proof of what the refining process does to corn on a per-pound basis (I threw in the salt, too).


On the cob                     492                   77
Corn Tortillas              1014                 254
Corn Flakes                 1600               4640
Corn Chips                  2448               2864
Corn Oil                       4054                     0

Essentially refined foods (read: prepared foods) pack a calorie wallop—which is a problem considering so many of them are the “bet you can’t just eat one” foods, like potato chips.

And your eyes don’t deceive you on the salt score for Corn Flakes, by the way. A startling fact, I learned at Pritikin: Most cereals, especially the “healthy” ones from the food stores have loads of sodium and flunk the 1:1 rule (the amount of sodium in milligrams should be equal to or less than the calories per serving).

Epilogue: My results and re-entry

One way I'll be keeping on my healthy track: weight lifting. (I hear it also prevents muffin top.)

So my week at Pritikin is drawing to a close, and I’m about to go back into a world of toxic food. This morning, I go from these coddled caloric confines to one of Miami International’s concourses, a caloric minefield. (Could this be the basis of a video game called Caloric Density Gladiator?)

A couple of days ago, the guy on the treadmill next to me said, “You’re skinny. What are you doing here?” Perfectly sound question—if you only think of this place as a weight-loss program. But I came for reinforcement and I got it. I’m leaving armed with a framework for eating and exercising that is roughly the same one I took with me from my last visit, but now bolstered by the effect of the stay and the results of the various tests I’ve had:

I’m down five pounds as of yesterday (Sunday).
In my cardio-stress test, the cardiogram ran out of paper before I ran out of endurance. “This is a great test, period,” said Dr. Marquit.
I’ve increased my good cholesterol (HDL) by 20 points since I was last here—the result of the ramped-up exercise program I started in 2005. HDL now makes up more than half of my total cholesterol. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Sugar told me, “You’re going to live forever.”
A DEXA scan showed that I’ve stabilized my osteopenia (low bone mineral density) since I was last here, probably through weight lifting and calcium supplements.
It also showed that I’m at 15% body fat, a drop of 4% in five years.
My blood pressure was good when I came in (110/70), but the low-salt diet has dropped it to 104/62. Avoiding salt will be my number one new priority.
My Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), the number of calories I’m burning when doing absolutely nothing, is great. (The rule of thumb is that your RMR should be ten times your weight. If you don’t know your baseline, find out. It can really change your game.)
All of my other markers are in the normal range.
And I’ve got about 10 new weight-lifting exercises to work into my routine, which could use some variety. These will help keep my RMR baseline where it is and my body burning calories even when I’m not at the gym.

This one's from Pritikin, but I'm going to get better at making salads at home thanks to a little chopping device

What this tells me is that all of those hours spent in the gym and a good but not neurotic adherence to the Pritikin eating plan since 2005 has worked.

I’m a devotee of salads but not great about making them myself, so this time around I picked up a little kitchen gadget from Pritikin that’s going to make it much easier to prepare salads at home. (It’s a salad chopper that turned to bite-size dice what a Cuisinart would just puree.)

It’s part of making a consistent effort and keeping an eye on the big nutritional picture.

I’m not going to become an ascetic. In fact I plan to take a nutritional holiday sometime next week—as I said in an earlier post, life is for livin’—but I won’t fall off the wagon. I’ve got miles to go.