Beginning with "Diet for a New America in 1987," author and activist John Robbins has been challenging the Standard American Diet (SAD) for longer than many of his fans have been alive. While not all may agree with his strict vegan stance, one would certainly have a tough time casting aspersions on the man who was once the heir-apparent to the Baskin-Robbins fortune and turned it down, to the consternation and disappointment of his father, because it ran counter to his beliefs.
His by now well-known tome, “The Food Revolution,” is available in a 10th anniversary edition, with a few cosmetic changes and a new introduction by the author. While the rest of the text remains the same, that’s because its relevance has not changed since 2001, and indeed, more people than ever are likely open to the idea of examining where their food comes from and what its impacts are. The subtitle to both the old and new versions of the book is “How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World.”
Much more than just another diet manifesto, Robbins’ plan is about “total body health,” which in the current climate must also take into consideration the environmental effects of our food production, from global warming caused by shipping food around (not to mention methane-belching cows) to animal-waste pollution. As Robbins writes, “I was learning that the same food choices that do so much to prevent disease — that give you the most vitality, the strongest immune system, and the greatest life expectancy — were also the ones that took the least toll on the environment, conserved our precious natural resources, and were the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures.” With rigorous attention to a variety of arguments, Robbins counters them with real science (the citations at the rear of the book run to 43 pages of peer-reviewed studies) to show readers the healthy way forward.
In Dr. Dean Ornish’s foreword to the book, he writes: “We often have a hard time believing that the simple choices we make each day — what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether we smoke, how much we exercise, and how well our social relationships support us — can make powerful differences in our well-being, even in our survival. But they do.” That is the crux of the change that Robbins is encouraging, making his book about supporting the body, because “it’s about not just how long we live, but how well.”
Covered in the almost 400-page text are the exact and specific threads tying food to health (there’s a chapter on heart disease, one on cancer, and what makes a healthy plant-based diet), all woven together with Robbins’ personal and oftentimes emotionally challenging memoirs. When a close friend dies of cancer, the author is openly bereft, attempting to understand if there is anything that could have been done to save his life, and it ends with the man grateful for his friends’ care. It’s a simple story outside the realm of food politics, yet inherent to understanding why Robbins and others do the work that they do.
Examinations of the fad diets that America seems never to tire of (and their long-term consequences), a close look at dairy, and an excoriation of food safety and the preponderance of pathogens in our industrialized food supply get a cross-examination. And that’s just Section One.
The later parts of the book dive into animal treatment and the rise of abuse in factory farms, and “Our Food, Our World” draws the lines between how we eat and how hungry other human beings are, and the environmental impacts of food production and processing. Lastly, Robbins devotes almost 100 pages to the problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Peppered liberally throughout all the book’s sections are boxes titled “What We Know” that present facts and data taken from journal articles and other scientific sources, and “Is That So?” which pits industry rhetoric against medical knowledge (the National Cattlemen’s Association vs. the director of the Framingham Heart Study, for example), which makes for some chuckle-worthy juxtapositions of information.
Despite the often disturbing and challenging information in Robbins’ “Food Revolution,” he takes a long-term view of making change to our food systems and ways of eating, reminding the reader, “One hundred and fifty years ago, slavery was legal in the United States. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in most states. Eighty years ago, there were no laws in the United States against any form of child abuse. Fifty years ago, we had no Civil Rights Act, no Clean Air or Clean Water legislation, no Endangered Species Act. I don't believe that we are isolated consumers, alienated from what gives life, and condemned to make a terrible mess of things on the planet. I believe we are human beings, flawed but learning, stumbling but somehow making our way toward wisdom, sometimes ignorant but learning through it all to live with respect for ourselves, for each other, and for the whole Earth community."