As the movie critic at The Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert has spent much of his adult life in dark rooms watching films. But these days, Ebert is passing on the popcorn. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reviewer, who has suffered from thyroid and salivary cancer, has lost 90 pounds in less than two years, thanks to the low-salt, low-fat Pritikin diet. Ebert discussed his passion for all things Pritikin with BusinessWeek Personal Business Editor Lauren Young.
Q: Why do you visit the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa and follow the Pritikin diet?
A: Pritikin is just common sense. [Founder] Nathan Pritikin was responsible for turning the food pyramid on its head. It's a combination of the Harvard and the boot camp of spas. It's a very serious program and not a place to simply get facials and play golf.
The thing that impresses me most is that the Pritikin program is based on continuously updated science. The lectures give you the equivalent of a college education in nutrition. Their scientists are published experts. Unless you can find a diet you can live on for the rest of your life, you're just spinning your wheels. These crackpot protein and low-carbohydrate theories are dangerous to the body, and they don't give you complete nutrition. One of the sad things about all of these best-selling diets is that you're tricking your body to lose weight. You're doing damage to your health, and in the end, nothing will have changed.
Q: What impact has the Pritikin diet had on your life?
A: I've lost about 90 pounds since December of 2002. I've been visiting Pritikin, first in Santa Monica and now in Florida, for 10 years. But each time after I left, I only managed to stay on the diet for three months -- once I got to [the Cannes Film Festival], all of my plans would be forgotten. I turned 60 in 2002, and I decided to take it seriously for a change.
The Pritikin program believes you can't lose weight without exercising, so, in addition to eating healthy, I wear a pedometer, and I try to walk 10,000 steps each day. Last month, I averaged 14,000 steps a day. I've had a lot of health problems, and while I did lose some weight because of my cancer, I've really been losing it gradually because of the diet and exercise.
Q: Why do you like the Pritikin spa?
A: One of the advantages is that you're assigned to a doctor there, and you meet with that doctor at least three times during your visit. The blood work they do [looks at] all sorts of things, such as arterial blockage. And you get a really good work up in terms of the physical exam.
Most people on blood-pressure medicine are off it within a week [of starting the regimen] -- the low-salt diet causes blood pressure to drop. I love the lectures -- I typically attend three a day. And there's a lot to eat, so you're never hungry. Most people go to Pritikin for two weeks, and the standing joke is that the food gets better. Once you leave and go out to a conventional restaurant, you realize American food is loaded with salt -- especially soup, which is unbearably salty.
Q: How do you apply your knowledge of the Pritikin diet in your own kitchen?
A: I have a rice cooker, and it only has two speeds, cook and hold. I don't have to set the time or the temperature. Even though the manufacturer says just to make rice in it, I cook everything in it. I started out by cooking the perfect breakfast: oatmeal with fruit and ground-up flax seed and a prune or two. I just slam on the top, and let it cook. I usually put two fruits in, typically a white fruit and something with color like berries.
Once I figured that out, I realized you can make anything in a rice cooker: veggie stews, chili, soup. Sometimes I cover the bottom with brown rice and water and put in a half-pound of fresh spinach and salmon steak on top.
Q: What do you do when you travel?
A: Believe it or not, when I go to [the Sundance Film Festival], I take my small size rice cooker. Everyone says: "Let's have dinner at Sundance." Well, the restaurants there are a mob scene. You have to wait and wait to get a table, which I think is a waste of time. And the evening movies are screened at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. I end up doing a lot of cooking in my room. This allows me to see an extra movie. I can go back after a film and write an article while dinner is cooking
Q: Is it true that Pritikin has a lot of other famous followers?
A: When my wife, Chaz, and I last visited, Charlie Rangel and David Dinkins were there. I've seen Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. I've also seen Buddy Hackett. But mainly it's frequented by Type-A people who work hard and don't want to hear about acupuncture and aromatherapy. They want a program that can change to reflect new knowledge.