Did Nathan Pritikin Foretell Jim Fixx’s Death?

Photo of Jim Fixx in 1980. Fixx, author of The Complete Book Of Running and credited with igniting America’s zeal for jogging in the 1970s, died in 1984 of a heart attack during his daily run. He was 52.

My recent post about women who put on weight, much of it fat, after beginning an exercise program reminded me of a conversation between the ultra-marathoner Jim Fixx and the low-fat diet advocate Nathan Pritikin. Below is an excerpt from John Robbins book Healthy At 100, where Robbins describes a phone call between Fixx and Pritikin:

“Exercise is tremendously important, but sometimes people try to accomplish with exercise alone what can be achieved only with a combination of exercise and nutrition. Those who believe that exercise can compensate for a high-fat diet, excess sugar consumption, or other dietary transgressions could learn from what happened to a remarkable man named Jim Fixx.

Jim Fixx had not always been a runner. Up until his mid-thirties, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, loved his burgers and shakes, and weighed 220 pounds. But at age thirty-five, he stopped smoking and began running. Within a short time he was running eighty miles a week and racing marathons, and had lost all his excess weight. His belief in the healing powers of running was so great, though, that he did not think he had to change his diet much. In his bestselling book, Fixx repeatedly quoted Thomas Bassler, M.D., who was then claiming that any nonsmoker fit enough to run a complete marathon in under four hours would never suffer a fatal heart attack.

Jim didn’t just ignore expert advice that he needed to eat more healthfully. On at least one occasion, he went out of his way to criticize those who offered such advice. At the time, probably the world’s foremost advocate of a low-fat diet as a means to open and heal clogged arteries was Nathan Pritikin. In his book titled Diet for Runners, Pritikin described a conversation he had with Jim Fixx that took place in January 1984:

“Jim Fixx phoned me and criticized the chapter “Run and Die on the American Diet” in my book The Pritikin Promise. In that chapter, I said that many runners on the average American diet have died and will continue to drop dead during or shortly after long-distance events or training sessions. Jim thought the chapter was hysterical in tone and would frighten a lot of runners. I told him that was my intention. I hoped it would frighten them into changing their diets. I explained that I think it is better to be hysterical before someone dies than after. Too many men, I told Jim, had already died because they believed that anyone who could run a marathon in under four hours and who was a nonsmoker had absolute immunity from having a heart attack.”

Sadly, only six months after this conversation, a passing motorcyclist discovered a man lying dead beside the road in northern Vermont. He was clad only in shorts and running shoes. The man was Jim Fixx.

As Shaun says, you can’t outrun a bad diet.

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