Are your diet choices about health and nutrition?
“Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word ‘sinful’ is most commonly associated with chocolate.”—David Brooks, New York Times (March 12, 2005)
“In our society,” declared one Prevention magazine advertisement, “the greatest single threat to survival is breakfast, lunch and dinner.” For the health-conscious individual, food is very often the enemy. The list of forbidden fruit is extensive. It amounts, in fact, to a body of neolevitical laws. Those who observe these laws religiously do so, in part, to ward off disease, death, and disaster. But dietary restrictions are always about more than just food. They are about focus, attention, power, control, and the calculated creation of a certain kind of heightened consciousness. They create systems that impose order upon the chaos of everyday life. Regardless of whether it is forbidden or permitted, food transcends itself in these systems; indeed, it becomes an integral part of what sociologist Max Weber described as
“an effort to systematize all the manifestations of life; that is, to organize practical behavior into a direction of life, regardless of the form it may assume in any individual case.”
Mosaic Law is a case in point. Although many of the laws delineated in the Book of Leviticus may have had a practical purpose—do not eat disease-ridden animals like vultures (Leviticus 11:14), keep your cooking equipment clean (Leviticus 11:35)—this utilitarian practicality was never the central purpose of these strictures. Their primary function was continually to remind the Israelites of their special relationship to God in the most mundane of everyday situations. Anthropologist Mary Douglas made just this point in Purity and Danger (1966), arguing that well-meaning scholars had wasted far too much time trying to uncover the rational intent of dietary restrictions.
“Even if some of Moses’s dietary rules were hygienically beneficial it is a pity to treat him as an enlightened public health administrator, rather than as a spiritual leader.” Douglas insisted that dietary laws were, at bottom, “signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God.” Hence the observance of these dietary rules was “a meaningful part of the great liturgical act of recognition and worship which culminated in the sacrifice in the Temple.”
Douglas, Weber, and others have shown that the content of a dietary restriction is much less interesting than its form. For its form is that of a ritual act, which inserts a kind of punctuation into the day, by breaking existing routines and creating new ones. The natural health movement’s long list of neolevitical dos and don’ts has done for millions of Americans in the last half century what Mosaic Law did for the Israelites: it has sacralized and transfigured the commonplace. For instance, after some rigorous testing, an apple, a head of lettuce, some broccoli, and a loaf of whole wheat bread are all magically transformed when an organization—with a special kind of authority—christens them “organic.” After that, consuming these everyday foodstuffs becomes, in the words of Robert Rodale, the“tangible expression of a philosophy of natural living. You do not just eat organic foods.”
Jerome Cohen and the Spirit of the Laws
Elizabeth Whelan and Fredrick Stare made it clear—in Panic in the Pantry (1975)—that the historical connection between the natural health movement’s dietary restrictions and the religious imagination was not lost on them:
“All major religions,” they observed, “have some form of food prescription which may uniquely characterize their particular sect.”
In support of this proposition, they noted that Janists do not eat meat, Hindus do not eat cows, Catholics avoid meat periodically, and Muslims are barred from eating pork, as are Jews, who are also barred from consuming shellfish. Though Whelan and Stare demonstrated the link between religion and dietary restrictions ably, they did so only so that they might discredit the dietary restrictions advocated by unorthodox health reformers. The logic behind their approach was clear enough: If all things religious are bunk; and all dietary restrictions that come from anyone other than a professional nutritionist are religious; then it follows that the dietary restrictions advanced by the unorthodox are bunk. Whelan and Stare seem to have believed that they could discredit the natural health movement by merely laying bare the religious nature of its dietary prohibitions. But tarring the health conscious with the religion brush was, in all likelihood, not nearly as damning as they seem to have presumed. Besides, as James Whorton rightly observed, in Crusaders for Fitness (1982):
“It is a rare individual who can allow mere scientific facts to unseat his faith in a regimen that he believes to have been his personal salvation.”
Among professional nutritionists, frustration often gave way to exasperation:
“How,” wondered Stare and Aronson, “can nutrition quackery flourish in our supposedly enlightened society?”
Exasperation, in turn, gave way to a familiar hand-wringing refrain:
“Our current preoccupation with ‘100% natural’ products, a fad based largely on the philosophies of Rodale and Davis, is,” declared Whelan and Stare, “much like the food binges of the past in that it appears to provide a way of meeting certain deep-seated emotional needs.”
Stare and his various colleagues never ventured to guess what those “deep-seated emotional needs” might be. Of at least one thing they were certain: the ideology of natural health that met these needs was tenaciously guarded. As one journalist put it,
“the nutrition scientist can no more convince the nutrition religionist or his would-be followers of the errors in their thinking than the evolution expert can convince a fundamentalist Baptist preacher and his congregation of the folly of the belief that man is the direct descendant of a piece of mud fashioned by a God lonely for a little companionship.”
The personal history of the man who coined the modern sense of the word organic, and did more than anyone else to popularize the organic way of life, may have something to do with the religious character of the natural health movement. Robert Rodale’s paternal grandfather, Michael Cohen, was an orthodox Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in the late 1870s. Cohen’s fourth son was born in New York City on August 16, 1898. He decided soon afterward that this son would be a rabbi. To that end, writes historian Carlton Jackson,
“he forced the boy at an early age to study the Old Testament and the Talmud . .. .”
That boy was Jerome Irving Cohen. He was terrified of his father.
“My father was like the voice of God thundering,” he once declared. “To me he was Jehovah, a wrathful God.”
Not long after his father died, young Jerome abandoned his religious training. Seven years later, in 1921, he relinquished his father’s name as well. J. I. Cohen became J. I. Rodale.
J. I. Rodale’s biographer, Carlton Jackson, has wisely judged that
“it was only the [religious] training he gave up, not the characteristics, for his later writings and his other activities had a distinctly religious fervor about them.” “He may openly have rebelled against the idea of becoming a rabbi,” Jackson maintains, “but the religious inclinations lingered on.”
Rodale’s organic farming manifesto is a case in point: Pay Dirt (1945) follows the stylistic pattern of the jeremiad and draws, often directly, upon the Law and the Prophets. Consider, for instance, how Rodale describes the Judgment Day that will come to pass if American farmers continue to use pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers:
“If we, as a nation, permit these practices to go on, we shall richly deserve consequences such as those predicted by the prophet Micah: ‘. . . the land shall be desolate because of them that dwell therein, for the fruit of their doings.’” Likewise, in 1970, Rodale used the language of sin to defend his prohibition on sugary snacks: “all foods containing sugar should be avoided like sin, which is precisely what they are.”
Jerome Rodale was raised in an orthodox kosher household based on the Laws of Leviticus. Is it so surprising, then, that his son, Robert Rodale, was raised in an orthodox organic household based on a set of dietary restrictions that can only be described as neo-levitical? Jerome Rodale fell away from the faith of his fathers and rejected the Letter of the Law. But the Spirit of the Law was reborn and lived on in the Prevention System, and in the comprehensive organic way of life that he advocated for the better part of his life. The content changed but not the form.
The Prevention System was, at bottom, an ascetic ideal. That said, there are some important differences between worldly and otherworldly ascetics. Ascetics of both types are willing to forgo pleasures and endure pains in the present because they trust that they will be recompensed at some point in the future. The otherworldly have faith that their reward is waiting for them in a paradise of some description. It will come to them only after death. Worldly ascetics expect their reward in a timelier manner. The quiet monk who lives out his simple flesh-denying existence in a monastery is perhaps the best example of an otherworldly ascetic. He lays up his treasures where neither moth nor rust can corrupt. He expects little from the City of Man. His reward awaits him in Heaven.
Nineteenth-century health reformers such as William Alcott and Sylvester Graham commingled asceticism of both kinds. Alcott and Graham believed that healthy living was pleasing to God and would be rewarded in this life and the next: freedom from disease and a long life here on Earth, glory and eternal bliss in Heaven. Twentieth-century health reformers such as Adelle Davis and Jerome Rodale are more easily classified as worldly ascetics. Davis and Rodale asked their followers to deny themselves certain pleasures, such as the velvety sweetness of ice cream, and the fragrant warm saltiness of buttered bread. They required that their followers endure certain pains as well, such as the bitter taste of brewer’s yeast and the blandness of rice cakes.The rewards Davis and Rodale promised were here on Earth: better sex, a sharper mind, a happy disposition, worldly success, a long life, as well as freedom from disease, mental illness, and fatigue. They were, then, despite their professed agnosticism, prophets, in the sense intended by Max Weber; that is to say their revelations provided faithful followers with a clear-cut diagnosis of the problem, a road to salvation, and
“a unified view of the world derived from a consciously integrated and meaningful attitude toward life.”
Narrow is the Way: The Salvation Narrative of the Health Conscious
“narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”—St. Matthew 7:13-14 (King James Version)
Health reform literature is often couched in the language of religious injunction. The moment, for instance, when an individual realized the error of his or her former ways and resolved to live a healthier life was analogous to an evangelical conversion experience. The testimony of Vic Stephan Sussman, a fairly well-known proponent of vegetarianism, is a case in point. In 1972, Sussman described his conversion in a revealing Prevention article (aptly entitled, “Confessions of a Food Freak”). He had encountered the ideology of natural health first in the late 1960s, through Adelle Davis’s bestseller, Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit (1954).
“I read the book through,” Sussman declared, “in an evening. Then I read it again. . . . Page after page of Truth flipped by under my vitamin A-deficient eyes: the evils of white sugar, the wonders of vitamin C, the worthlessness of refined flour, the miracles wrought by yeast and yogurt, the blessings of B-vitamins. I was converted.”
He then describes how he voraciously sought out and read everything else that he could get his hands on by Adelle Davis and others of her stamp, such as Jerome Rodale.
Adolphus Hohensee, Carlton Fredericks, and Robert Rodale maintained that the first obstacle average Americans would invariably encounter, after they resolved to reform, was their own corrupted palates. Years of fatty, over-processed, over-salted and over-sweetened food had so jaded the American taste buds, they argued, that healthy food seemed boring, tasteless, and bland. The gluttonous American palate had to be reëducated.
“Gluttony and clear thinking,” wrote the author of How to Always Be Well (1967), “do not belong together; and the wholly sensuous devotee of the table is bound by his habits to life on a much lower plane than that to which he might easily aspire if he took food for a purpose, rather than for the sensuous pleasure of eating.”
Mark Bricklin flamboyantly referred to junk food as nutritional pornography.
“Pornofood,” he claimed, “can make real food look and even taste relatively dull, just as X-rated movies make real sex seem dull.”
The person who wishes to overcome his or her cravings for prepackaged French fries, greasy cheeseburgers and Coca-Cola faces an uphill battle—it is not, Bricklin conceded, “easy to resist their powerful temptation”—because the “pornofood manufacturers” had grown adept at cynically manipulating some basic human drives. Nature, averred Bricklin,
“has programmed human beings with certain dietary cravings which are every bit as powerful as our procreative urges, and junk food—whether it be a chocolate mousse or a Tootsie Roll—represents the calculated exploitation of these instincts.”
Health gurus insisted that only the most herculean of efforts could extricate the individual from the clutches of this insalubrious system. What was needed, they argued, was an indefatigable Will to Health. The baser impulses had to be made slaves to this will. A great deal of hard work was required to repress all that desire and deal with all of the attendant discomfort. At first just doing right and avoiding wrong would suffice. But true victory could not be declared until what was once a grueling act of the will became second nature.
The health-conscious individual had to learn to love the good, not just do the good. He had genuinely to enjoy performing his daily exercises, love the taste of health food, and dislike the very smell of junk food. The American lifestyle had to be reformed; the American palate had to be reëducated. Conviction had to lead to repentance, which, in turn, had to lead to regeneration. Vic Stephan Sussman’s testimonial follows the lines of this salvation narrative flawlessly. A junk-food junkie in his former life, Sussman claimed that the cravings for his past delights were initially hard to withstand. But as he learned more and more from the works of Adelle Davis, Jerome Rodale and others, he became increasingly disgusted with junk food. In fact, he learned to hate it. He gave up meat, milk, all processed foods, alcohol, coffee, tobacco, as well as the twin white evils of civilization, refined white sugar and refined white flour. Sussman’s newfound enthusiasm won him no friends. Quite to the contrary, he confessed that many of his old friends and family members were profoundly offended by his “missionary zeal to bring Nutritional Salvation to the overfed and undernourished.”
In “Confessions of a Food Freak,” Vic Sussman freely acknowledged that he and his wife, Betsy Sussman, had become exceedingly difficult dinner guests. They were both strict vegetarians, which was problem enough. All the same, he claimed that it was his highly restrictive diet that invariably caused the most dinner-party friction. Betsy was, apparently, less of a hardliner than he, and a good deal easier to please. Vic was often unable to eat or drink anything that his hostess put in front of him. He would not accept a glass of wine because he believed it to be little more than a poison. A glass of orange juice was also out of the question, for it was surely full of benzoic acid. A glass of milk—that is, the “chemicalized secretions of mechanized cows”—was equally unpalatable. Even a plain old glass of tap water would not do, since it too had been defiled with noxious chemicals (in this case, chlorine and fluorine). Out of politeness, Betsy Sussman would sometimes accept things like “chocolate cake, store-bought pie, jelly doughnuts, and (gasp) French pastry.” She often berated her husband for his pigheadedness and insisted that it was “wrong to shame a hostess by refusing her offerings.” “Better,” Vic Sussman would reply,
“to shame a hostess than to profane my stomach.”
Robert Rodale was capable of health-nut machismo as well. In the autumn 1969 edition of Fitness for Living magazine (a short-lived Rodale Press venture), he admonished the health conscious to avoid “sissified foods” like white bread and “soft” ice cream. After praising the manly vigor portrayed in the John Wayne movie True Grit (1969), Rodale reminded his readers that,
“the West of our own country was tamed by men who built bulging muscles while eating victuals that most modern Americans don’t even have the strength to chew.”
Rodale often advised his readers to refuse, under any circumstances, to give into the peer pressure to drink coffee, tea, beer, or wine.
“If you feel,” he once wrote, “that you have to drink a certain thing to keep other people happy, you are revealing weakness.” “You don’t have to go along with the crowd,” argued Rodale, “and eat all that polite, ordinary food that makes you fat, sluggish and old before your time.”
Robert Rodale could talk tough, but in practice he was probably much more like Betsy Sussman. Being a hardliner simply was not in Robert’s nature. He was a tall, thin, quiet man who, by all accounts, could not stand to be impolite.
“I am not a fanatic about diet,” he once confessed, “and will eat just about any kind of food once or twice, especially to avoid hurting the feelings of a dinner hostess.”
Dietary Restrictions and Neolevitical Laws
“Prevention magazine, in this age of artificial living, serves as the interpreter of the laws of nature.”—Earl J. Livingstone, Prevention: The Magazine for Better Health (April 1970)
Unlike the Laws of Leviticus, the Laws of Health enshrined in the Prevention System were not set in stone. The list of things that the health-conscious individual was supposed to avoid was exhaustive, and, at times, byzantine. This was further complicated because health reformers could not always agree upon what was forbidden and what was permitted. The waters were muddied still further, from time to time, when the catechism of dos and don’ts that the most influential health gurus could agree upon was amended without notice. They were instead quite amendable. Keeping up with the ever-changing Letter of the Law was often baffling. Refined white sugar, smoking, and the excessive use of salt were all consistently prohibited in the second half of the twentieth century. But other things—such as eggs, milk, coffee, bread, meat, and even alcoholic beverages—fell in and out of favor during the same period. In 1989, Mark Bricklin bemoaned the fact that so many of the Prevention readers that he had met over the years seemed confused, unable to tell nutritional right from wrong. What Bricklin failed to acknowledge was that health reformers like him had contributed to that confusion on numerous occasions. The fluctuating fortunes of the chicken’s egg are a case in point.
The natural health movement’s most influential leaders—Adelle Davis, Jerome Rodale, and Carlton Fredericks—had nothing but good things to say about eggs in the 1950s and 1960s. They touted them as the cornerstone of any health diet. Two or three with breakfast each day was eminently prudent. When professional nutritionists began sounding the alarm about a possible link to heart disease in the mid-1960s, Jerome Rodale told his readers to keep eating their eggs and pay the cholesterol scare no mind. Robert Rodale proffered the same advice throughout the 1970s.
“I eat two eggs almost every day,” he jubilantly declared, “and the last time my blood cholesterol was checked it was 176. That’s darn good.”
Yet by 1990, Robert Rodale was telling Prevention readers to cut back severely on their egg consumption. He had changed his mind, and was now limiting himself to one or two a week.
It was hard to keep up with the status of milk as well.
“Cow’s milk,” Adolphus Hohensee declared, “may be a perfectly balanced food for the calf’s stomach but not for the human being.”
In the 1940s, Hohensee blamed much disease and ill health on the American obsession with dairy products. He nevertheless maintained that there was hope for milk. It could be redeemed. When transformed into buttermilk, Hohensee claimed that milk became an acceptable, health-giving food. Dairy products in any form were anathema to Jerome Rodale. They were, he alleged, especially bad for children. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Jerome Rodale contended that dairy products exaggerated and distorted the human growth pattern, producing adults that were chronically ill and unnaturally tall. He believed that Americans were far too tall, and that childhood milk consumption was to blame.
Robert Rodale did not inherit his father’s passionate aversion to bovine mammary secretions. Though he felt that moderation was in order, he always made room at his table for some skim milk. Adelle Davis thought moderation folly. Still an Indiana farm girl at heart, she stubbornly insisted well into the 1970s that there was nothing wrong with dairy products. Quite to the contrary, declared Davis:
“Milk is such a valuable food that a quart daily should be drunk by each person, regardless of age. Almost every individual,” she added, “who does not drink milk shows signs of deficiencies of protein, calcium, and riboflavin, or vitamin B2.” “I have yet to know,” she elsewhere announced, “of a single adult to develop cancer who has habitually drunk a quart of milk daily.”
Alcoholic beverages and coffee suffered similar fates at the hands of the high priests of health: Despised by the health conscious in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, both had gained limited acceptance by the late 1980s. Jerome Rodale believed that there was nothing wrong with knocking back an alcoholic drink from time to time. The fruit of the vine was particularly inoffensive to him.
“Wine in moderation,” he once professed, “can harm no one. Jesus drank it.”
Still, Rodale maintained that the health-conscious individual should strive to “be practically a teetotaler.” His son was much less equivocal. As a young man, Robert Rodale often quaffed a scotch and water before dinner. It was the 1950s, after all, and he was a newly-married man in his twenties living in suburban America. With age, however, he grew suspicious of alcohol’s supposedly benign nature; he gave it up altogether in the late 1960s. Rodale’s antipathy for strong drink intensified in the early 1970s. So much so, in fact, that in 1975 he claimed that alcohol was “one of the greatest debilitating forces ever to have occurred to the mind of man.” While Robert Rodale was at the helm, from 1971 to 1990, most Rodale Press publications that touched on the subject of alcohol advocated teetotalism.
Coffee fared only slightly better in the second half of the twentieth century. Because of its caffeine content, coffee had since the nineteenth century been decried as a promoter of ill-health. In The Laws of Health (1857), William Alcott argued that coffee was a dangerous narcotic. John Kellogg, grand architect of America’s first luxury health resort, the Battle Creek Sanitarium, believed that coffee “crippled the liver” and was in all likelihood the root cause of diabetes. Likewise, Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), father of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, advised Americans to steer clear of coffee and Coca-Cola because they both contained caffeine, a chemical compound he deemed poisonous. Jerome Rodale referred to caffeine as a “demon” all the way to the end. But that does not seem to have stopped him from having a steaming cup of java every morning. His standard excuse was that it had a stabilizing effect upon his heartbeat. When pressed, though, he conceded that he simply could not think or write or work without it. His son struggled with a nasty caffeine habit, too.
Unlike his father, however, Robert Rodale was eventually able to kick the habit for good in his early forties. From the early 1970s onward, he never had a good thing to say about the stuff. Robert Rodale and others such as Carlton Fredericks linked coffee consumption, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, to everything from cancer and infertility to mental health problems and antisocial behavior. One Prevention writer insisted that coffee was a “threat” to mental health, even when it was consumed in “ordinary doses.” He went so far as to suggest that caffeine might be the country’s
“number one drug problem.” “Just as surely,” declared another, “as the alcohol user or the heroin user is an addict, so is the person who is addicted to caffeine.”
Coffee’s bad press increased exponentially during the 1970s and for the first half of the 1980s. By the late 1980s, however, Mark Bricklin and others were softening their tone. Coffee in moderation was, they now argued, not so bad after all. They claimed that new research had indicated that coffee did not cause birth defects or high blood pressure, as so many of the minds behind Prevention had once supposed, nor, apparently, did it cause cancer or breast lumps. Recent studies suggested, as well, that coffee brought out the best in extroverts and was probably an important tool in the drugless management of asthma. Likewise, in the mid-1980s, some Prevention writers began to concede that alcoholic beverages such as red wine had health-building properties that made them altogether worthwhile, so long as they were consumed in moderation and not accompanied by white bread.
If anything has united health-conscious North Americans, it is the belief that white bread is inherently evil. Indeed, they have denounced refined white flour with a consistency that is matched only by the equally steadfast manner in which they have condemned refined white sugar. But this is a well-worn position that dates back to the very moment when the refinement process was patented in the mid-nineteenth century. The newfangled loaves had only just started to appear in American kitchens when health reformer Sylvester Graham set out on his quixotic crusade against white bread. His diatribes against the refinement of flour had all of the righteous indignation of an itinerant preacher’s altar call. But Graham’s jeremiad was only heard in small circles, and even there he probably found some hard hearts.
Americans liked their white bread, for the most part. They liked the look of it. They liked its ethereal fluffiness, and its delicate (some would say nonexistent) flavor. Besides, white bread stayed fresh considerably longer than its virtuous brown predecessor, because the refined flour from which it was made had been emancipated from its more earthbound, perishable parts. For Graham, the impoverished remnants of the denuded wheat berry that went into white bread represented everything that was wrong with the industrialization of the American food supply. He believed that something precious and essential was irretrievably lost during this violent process.
Graham’s sentiments have been recycled and reused by pure-food activists, almost verbatim, for over a century and a half. One Prevention writer described white bread as “pre-sliced absorbent cotton” with the nutritional value of sawdust, whilst another maintained that consuming it was a mortal sin:
“Destroying God’s temple takes place when we ingest material that has been bleached, processed, and stripped of all its God-given nutrients.”
Adelle Davis went so far as to claim that France was easily overwhelmed by the Nazis in 1940, in part, because of “the enfeebling French passion for white bread.” There was certainty and perhaps some comfort to be found in this stridency. Newly-minted health enthusiasts, still trying to figure out what was required of them, could be absolutely sure of at least one thing: white flour products were expressly forbidden. Did it then follow that whole wheat bread—made of virginal, unsullied flour—was permitted? Not necessarily. Even the subject of bread could be thorny. Jerome Rodale, for one, stood squarely against the consumption of bread in any form to his dying day.
“Bread,” as he so often declared, “has no place in the Prevention System. It is not the staff of life, even though it is whole wheat.” “To me,”he added, “this prescription against bread is one of the most important planks in the Prevention System, and applies to the organically-raised wheat as well as that raised with chemical fertilizers.”
Unambiguously clear statements such as these left little room for amendments or innovation. All the same, as if to keep Prevention’s six million readers on their toes, Robert Rodale successfully performed yet another doctrinal about-face in the late 1970s. On his watch, bread not only made it back on the table, it became a staple, one of the centerpieces of his new and improved, high-carbohydrate version of the Prevention System. Prevention magazine continued to sing the praises of whole-grain bread in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. Jerome Rodale must have rolled over in his grave! Still, I suspect that the inclusion of bread in the Prevention System would have aroused his fury less than the exclusion of juicy beefsteaks.
The Vegetarian Debate: Diet for a Small Planet or a Small Brain?
“Giving up steaks and chops in the United States is like becoming an atheist in Vatican City.”—Vic Stephan Sussman, The Vegetarian Alternative: A Guide to a Healthful and Humane Diet (1978)
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Jerome Rodale contended that vegetarianism warped the personality. Subsisting on a meatless diet transformed most people, he alleged, into listless bores that dozed off too often and were easily swayed by others. In rarer cases, however, he maintained that the opposite was true: vegetarianism filled some people with an all-consuming rage, an irrational hatred for the things of this world. He claimed that Adolf Hitler was a perfect example of this rarer case, as was vegetarian playwright George Bernard Shaw (“a very angry man”).
“I feel,” wrote Rodale, “that it was his lack of animal protein that made him so irritated with the world.” “Had Shaw eaten thick beef-steaks every day,” perhaps, he speculated, “his body chemistry might have been different. He might have been more contented and less vicious in his writings.”
The fact that so many angry activists were also vegetarians was, he suggested, no mere coincidence. Be that as it may, Rodale was sure to emphasize that Shaw, Hitler, and other vegetarians like them were the exception, not the rule; most vegetarians moved through the world in a semi-sedated daze and lacked the get-up-and-go to do anything of note.
Rodale believed that most vegetarians were lackluster dullards who under-performed in the bedroom as well as the boardroom. They were at a “serious disadvantage” in the first instance because the vegetarian diet had, he insisted, “a tendency to dampen the sexual desire” and impede performance.
“There can be no question,” he unequivocally declared, “that the lack of meat acts to subdue the carnal fires of sex.”
Incidentally: arguing from exactly the same assumption—that meat intensifies the sexual drive—nineteenth-century health reformer Sylvester Graham admonished his followers to abstain from meat. Be that as it may, Jerome Rodale claimed that the vegetarian’s lack of primordial drive manifested itself in the world of work as well as the world of play. He argued that vegetarians lacked the “dynamic mental aggressiveness” that was needed to succeed and excel in business, science, and government.
“If you have a ‘big’ job,” Rodale cautioned, “don’t prejudice your position by going vegetarian.”
On the other hand, he added, if
“you have been a vegetarian up to this point you must change over to meat-eating at once. The sooner you do this the quicker will you attain that dynamic quality in your thinking and doing which will make you a superior person.”
Jerome Rodale alleged that vegetarianism was ultimately a threat to national security. For if too many Americans adopted a meatless diet, their lassitude and woeful lack of manly vigor would in time corrupt the national character and weaken the state.
“In studying man,” Rodale solemnly declared, “you will find that the meat-eating races have always conquered the non-meat eaters.”
Adolphus Hohensee made a similar point in 1948 with reference to Britain’s colonial relationship with India:
“less than five thousand meat-eating British are capable of controlling over five hundred million Indian vegetarians in India.”
He claimed that this was no accident of history, but rather a direct result of the colonial power’s penchant for carnivorous cuisine. What was more, Hohensee insisted that many of the difficulties associated with the British administration of the Indian economy could be traced back to the same root cause:
“the vegetarian’s diet, upon which the greater part of the population of India subsists, is, in a large measure, responsible for the faults of inefficiency and the desire to drift along the lines of least resistance evidenced by the Indian worker.”
Vegetarianism was rare in the United States when Hohensee penned these words in the late 1940s. It was marginal throughout the 1950s and 1960s as well. During this period, vegetarianism was largely confined to religious sects that prohibited meat, such as the Seventh Day Adventists; to blue-blooded Boston Brahmans who were seeking solace in Eastern mysticism, like their Transcendentalist forebears, and paying handsome sums to fashionable Indian gurus like Jiddu Krishnamurti; to the beatniks, and later on to the hippies; and to the various bohemian communities of artists, poets, writers and misfits that congregated in trendy urban neighborhoods like Greenwich Village in New York City.
When Americans abstained from eating meat in the 1950s and 1960s, they did so by and large for the good of the soul, not the body. Still, there were some important distinctions between them. Those chiefly influenced by the wisdom literature of the East frequently viewed vegetarianism as a means to an end. They believed that meat hindered spiritual growth by encouraging precisely those human qualities—selfishness, restlessness, and aggression—that prevented individuals from achieving higher states of consciousness. Sacred Indian texts, such as The Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita, which were widely available in cheap paperback English translations during the post-war era, taught that it was easier for those who subsisted on a vegetarian diet to transcend the hurly-burly of everyday life, contemplate spiritual matters, and meditate upon the eternal.
“Vegetables, grains, fruits, milk and water,” declared the Bhagavad-Gita, “are the proper foods for human beings, as is here prescribed by Lord Krishna Himself.”
If an individual was truly “seeking advancement in life and release from the clutches of material entanglement,” he should avoid meat, fish, and eggs. Those who persist in consuming these foods ought to know that they “are eating only sin.”
“In other words,” the Gita’s speaker added, “their every mouthful is simply deepening their involvement in the complexities of material nature. But to prepare nice, simple vegetable dishes,” the verse concluded, “is to advance steadily in life, to purify the body, and to create fine brain tissues which will lead to clear thinking.”
The vegetarianism inspired by Eastern mysticism was, at the end of the day, a kind of ascetic discipline practiced by athletes of the spirit. In America, it was often short-lived and seasonal, too. An individual might choose to give up meat for a spell to clear the mind and do some soul-searching, in much the same way that an Olympic athlete might choose to give up certain foods during a period of intense training. But the very same soul-searcher might resume meat consumption six months later, and, two years after that, give it up again, without incurring the judgment of like-minded vegetarians.
Much more firm was the commitment of those vegetarians who were motivated, above all else, by ethical considerations and a strong commitment to animal rights. Vegetarians of this stamp abstained from eating meat because they believed that it was fundamentally wrong to consume the flesh of another sentient being. Dining on the corpses of dead animals was, they felt, repugnant and immoral. It did violence to the soul. Many of these individuals refused to even use anything derived from an animal’s body, much less consume it. They would not, for example, wear leather shoes, wool socks, silk scarves, or anything made of animal fur.
I had a vegetarian of this description as a house guest a number of years ago who refused, at bedtime, to sleep on the feather pillow provided for him. As I had no other kind, this occasioned a late-night trip to the pharmacy and some ruffled feathers. Still, before long, a pillow made of suitably virtuous materials was procured, and a good sleep was had by all. Be that as it may, if pressed, a fair number of ethical vegetarians would have claimed that meatless living was good for the body, too. Quite a few of the ascetic vegetarians would have made the same claim. But this claim was seldom central to the logic of vegetarianism during the 1950s and 1960s, and it is likely that many vegetarians doubted its validity and yet still abstained from eating meat. The health of the soul was of overriding significance for vegetarians, and they were willing to make some sacrifices if need be.
Those who believed that the health of the body was of paramount importance considered vegetarianism foolish in the 1950s and 1960s. Professional nutritionists such as Fredrick John Stare encouraged the American people to eat a great deal of meat, as did mavericks such as Adelle Davis and Jerome Rodale. Unorthodox health gurus like Davis and Rodale worried about the quality of the meat Americans were eating, not the quantity. They wanted to reform the beef industry, not abolish it. Pillars of nutritional orthodoxy such as the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Association maintained that the trace amounts of man-made chemicals found in conventionally-raised meat were harmless. Gadflies like Davis and Rodale insisted that these chemicals were harmful.
It was often a bitter debate. Still, beneath the conflict was considerable consensus. On this proposition, at least, the orthodox and the unorthodox could agree: eating meat was natural and beneficial. The onus was therefore on vegetarians to prove that they were somehow compensating for their nutritionally-deficient diet. They had to demonstrate, for example, how they were making up for all that missing protein and iron and vitamin B12. In the 1950s and 1960s, the virtues of eating meat were assumed and vegetarians were on the defensive. All of this changed in the early 1970s.
Vegetarianism was on the rise during this period, especially among educated middle-class baby-boomers. Within America as a whole, vegetarians were still a marginal group of little consequence. Within the health-conscious subculture, however, the spike in vegetarianism was felt much more acutely. Vegetarians were no longer on the defensive among the Prevention-reading set. Quite to the contrary, they were storming the barricades and challenging received wisdom. They maintained that vegetarianism significantly reduced the likelihood the one would develop coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes, a weight problem, and cancer, specifically cancers of the prostate and colon.
They claimed, moreover, that vegetarians tended to consume more health-promoting vitamins and minerals than non-vegetarians, and less illness-promoting substances like cholesterol and saturated fat. Armed with statistics and studies, these articulate men and women argued that meatless living was good for the body; it was, they insisted, good for the environment and the soul, too. Advocates of wholeness, these young idealists refused to submit to false choices and have their lives compartmentalized. They maintained that what was good for the soul must, of necessity, be good for the body; likewise, what was good for the body must be good for the environment.
In the 1970s, no issue divided the natural health movement more than vegetarianism. The rivalry pitted a somewhat younger crowd—people like Mark Bricklin and Frances Moore Lappé—against an older generation of health gurus, people like Jerome Rodale, Adelle Davis, and Carlton Fredericks. Bricklin, Lappé, and others of their stamp had become enamored with vegetarianism. They favored a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet. The old guard would have no truck with vegetarianism. They continued to advocate an omnivorous, low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. The debate could get downright ugly at times, as it did in 1978, four years after Adelle Davis died of bone cancer. Davis had died at the relatively young age of seventy. In a world in which death is seen as a failure, and 70 a mediocre score, Davis’s cancer became a liability not only for the natural health movement in general, but also for the specific faction within the movement that she had allied herself with. Davis had always positioned herself squarely within the meat-loving camp. It was perhaps therefore inevitable that her death would eventually be used by her vegetarian critics to advance their cause. A couple of years later, a nutrition newsletter out of California did just that—suggesting that Davis had developed cancer and died relatively young as a result of her high-protein diet. Carlton Fredericks, a personal friend of Adelle Davis, and lifelong supporter of carnivorous high-protein eating, wrote a furious rebuttal to this charge.
“Recommending meat,” Robert Rodale rightly observed in 1980, “is not a fashionable thing for a health writer to do these days. Vegetarianism is in. People who are not total vegetarians are telling their friends that they don’t eat as much red meat as they used to.”
Things had changed a great deal in the ten years since 1970. Among the natural health movement’s more radical avant-garde, passionate paeans to the pork chop were already starting to sound vaguely passé in the late 1960s. Vegetarian-bashing seemed equally antiquated in these hip circles. But by the mid-1970s, sympathy for vegetarianism was so widespread among the health conscious that—were he still alive—Jerome Rodale’s politically-incorrect views vis-à-vis vegetarians would have been a major source of embarrassment for the staff of Prevention magazine.
The vegetarian issue threatened to open up an unbridgeable rift between the leadership and the rank-and-file.
“You may not be concerned with vegetarianism,” as one angry letter to the editorial staff of Prevention magazine put it, “but I hope you are aware that many of your subscribers are!”
Robert Rodale agonized over the meat issue for quite some time. As with so many other things, he initially adopted his father’s position whole cloth, but later changed his mind. While he never advocated total abstinence from meat, with time his views moved much closer to the vegetarian camp. In 1972, Robert Rodale claimed that even though
“commercially-produced meat does have certain weaknesses, we can’t escape the fact that meat is one of the healthier foods available to us.”
Yet as early as 1974, Rodale was already starting to change his tune.
“I’m eating a lot less meat,” he declared in 1974. “My recommendation,” he counseled, “is to cut down drastically on steaks, chops, roasts, and chicken dinners. Americans are meat gluttons. Many people eat meat at every meal, a senseless overindulgence.”
Ten years later,in 1984, Rodale informed his followers that he was eating even less meat.
“Today, I’m eating meat only once every few days. Someday, that will drop to once a week, or even less.”
Sadly, that someday never came: Robert Rodale died in a car accident outside of Moscow in 1990.
As strange as it sounds, Rodale Press defended Robert’s legacy best in the 1990s by rejecting much of what he stood for at the time of his death. Though the consumption of beef was a cornerstone of the Prevention System in the 1950s and 1960s, the practice was nevertheless judged objectionable in the 1970s and 1980s, only to be endorsed yet again during the 1990s after a revival of interest in the teachings of Robert Atkins, an eccentric health guru who had been extolling the virtues of red meat since the early 1970s. In the early years of the new millennium, the beef industry’s star continued to rise among the health conscious, especially in the wake of Rodale Press’s publication of the South Beach Diet (2003), a much fêted bestseller which advocated a diet that was high in protein. At first glance, doctrinal flip-flops such as this one seem patently problematic. After all, why would someone continue to heed the words of wishy-washy authorities that so often second-guess themselves?
Why listen to health gurus that so frequently change their minds about matters of vital importance? If the high priests of health were wrong yesterday, could they not be wrong today? Why give up margarine or beef or anything else based on a decree that might be repealed three years hence? Why renew your subscription to Prevention magazine, year after year, in full knowledge that much of its advice has a shelf-life? Objections such as these seem obvious and devastating so long as one assumes that most health-conscious Americans were wedded, first and foremost, to the content of the Prevention System. If one assumes, instead, that they were wedded to the Prevention System as such, then these objections lose much of their thunder. If one assumes, moreover, that the allegiance of the health conscious was to the Spirit of the Law, not the Letter of the Law, then their tolerance for a certain amount of doctrinal change becomes, at once, that much more understandable.
It is important to note, first and foremost, that the authorities that the health conscious looked to for guidance did not claim to be inspired by God, nor did they claim any other kind of epistemic privilege. They claimed to be inspired by scientific journals. They insisted that their advice was based upon the latest and most relevant research. Of course this was not entirely true. For instance, Adelle Davis and Carlton Fredericks cherry-picked data on a regular basis and misrepresented research findings with impunity. Many others did likewise. Regardless, the fact that these health gurus claimed that their recommendations were, at bottom, based on science, made it easier for them to change with the times gracefully. The fluid foundations of science made innovation relatively painless for health reformers.
Innovation is not nearly so easy when, for example, a community believes that the final word on important matters is to be found in a sacred text, such as the Bible or the Qur’an. To justify innovation in such a community, one must reinterpret the sacred text in a way that is favorable to the cause. But this is not always easy. Though most texts are open to a wide variety of interpretation, some interpretations are much more logically plausible than others. Furthermore, some interpretations ring true because they are familiar, while others that are less familiar do not ring true, though they may be just as plausible. Since the received wisdom about sacred texts usually supports the status quo, innovators often have to torture meanings out sacred texts that are tendentious, implausible, mendacious, and embarrassing. Consider, for example, the abolitionists’ frequent attempts to prove that the Bible and the American Constitution supported the antislavery cause.
Health reformers like Robert Rodale did not face the same obstacles. The authoritative texts that they looked to were not only open to a great deal of interpretation; they changed over time, too. The scientific enterprise is, at least in theory, never-ending, and the truths that it yields are all more or less tentative. So it was only reasonable for the health conscious to assume that the Laws of Health would change from time to time. The Prevention System was an unfolding revelation. The fact that Prevention magazine changed its tune on numerous occasions would not have fazed the faithful. It was certainly not reason for canceling one’s subscription. Quite to the contrary, it was reason enough for continuing one’s subscription and reading each new issue feverishly. Keeping on top of the ever-changing Letter of the Law was hard work. It required commitment and diligence. It was not easy. Nor was it supposed to be.
“To live naturally in this unnatural world,” Robert Rodale once declared, “requires conscious thought, planning, and some sacrifices.” “Healthful living,” he added, “requires self-discipline and will power.”
The way to health was narrow and difficult. All save the most resolute were expected to fail.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
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