Bullshit Book Report: “Health Secrets of Famous People”

“Health Secrets of Famous People” (Rodale Books) is an anti-carbohydrate manifesto written by a fairly hysterical author in 1961. It’s the sort of short nutritional guidebook that an independent press prepared during a time when popular holistic medicine was at war with the more scientific approach that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. While it professes to give you “secrets,” it often speculates about the diets of famous people. As the book goes on, it devolves into one hyperbolic story after another of how sugars, wheat, and various carbohydrates have devastating effects on the human body, including death and insanity.

In fact, the author concludes the final chapter with this mind-blowing nutritional fact: if Hitler had avoided sugar, 6 million people might not have perished in the Holocaust. We’ll get back to that.

When looking for books at the thrift store – this one I found in the Goodwill in West Harlem, recommended to me by a friend with great taste – I dig through looking for anything that could not be otherwise found on the Internet. Old gynecology textbooks or 80s-era guides titled “How to Make $1 Million With Your Telephone.” And especially anything vanity-published by a lunatic.

The first thing I saw was Gloria Swanson’s smiling, tight, eyebrow-penciled face on the cover. The book was well worn, so I flipped through carefully. I first encountered a detailed description of Louis XIV’s anus and colon.

“An anal abscess later resulted in a fistula – that is, a draining sore. Louis also had worms. He was subject to the vapours, which some of his biographers have attributed to the worms. But it seems that the 10 worms passed by the king during his lifetime could probably not have been the reason. The enormous meals which he ate were probably responsible …”

That was one of the shorter chapters. Further nuggets of wisdom included:

“What an excellent idea if today we might have a law that sugar could only be obtained by a doctor’s prescription!”

Which summarizes the author’s entire view of sugars and starches – they are “poison.”

Gloria Swanson is portrayed as “brave” for standing up for healthy eating, with one section of her profile dedicated to the question, “Does it take courage to let the world know what you think about such things, when organized medicine and the foods industry are against you?”

I’m starting to think the book might be part of some kind of propaganda campaign by a paranoid group of anti-communists – the kind of people straight out of Dr. Strangelove, worried about our precious bodily fluids and fluorination. Organized medicine? Long before chemtrails, there were sugars and carbs and modern Western medicine to be feared by the very small organic health movement (and the osteopathic and chiropractic movements) this book’s author represents. Rodale Books appears to have few other publications, all written by J.I. Rodale and “various editors,” one on organic gardening and another titled “Health Secrets from Foreign Lands” (which, I admit, I want to read because I suspect it will be filled with examples of cultural insensitivity).

Gloria Swanson just happens to be one of Rodale’s idols, and the mascot of a “clean life,” as dedicated as she was to eradicating “chemicals” from her environment (Swanson would not, for instance, perform on a stage that had at any point been exposed to bug spray).

“If [Gloria Swanson] went to a banquet, she went prepared. When the creamed chicken was set before her, she calmly reached into her fashionable purse and came up with an organically grown avocado which she proceeded to slice and eat instead, while mayors, senators or tycoons looked on, unbelievingly.”

I took this book home and read all 96 pages of it immediately. I’m still not totally sure if this was promotional material or not, but the author had taken the subject very seriously.

Mr. Rodale comes across as a condescending know-it-all twat who strongly believes he alone understands the cause of every famous person’s health problems, regardless of the statements of doctors or biographers. He frequently inserts what he and his wife prefer to eat to maintain their health and figures, and describes the body size of each famous person he profiles. The enemies are everywhere, as far back as the birth of civilization, plaguing our historical figures. Sugar. Carbohydrates. Wheat. The pasta that almost killed Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong “almost died” in the middle of the night in Italy, because, according to Mr. Rodale, he had eaten pasta before bed. “Satchmo could have eaten a big fat steak and a lot of fruit and gone right to bed and nothing would have happened,” writes Rodale. “He could have eaten eggs and lettuce and cantaloupe and bananas,” (foods Rodale and his wife prefer) “and nothing would have happened. But bread or spaghetti … those are different. They do not become thoroughly digested and ferment.”

Well, this is the first big heap of bullshit. Unless Louis Armstrong had the very rare auto-brewery syndrome, or ate raw activated yeast, the stomach does not have a high enough PH level to allow fermentation to take place. Also, I don’t think Rodale is aware of the fact that fruit and protein could be just as likely to ferment in the colon as bread or pasta.

Now that we have scholarly articles on digestion available to us, and no longer have to rely on health booklets like this one with vague blanket statements based on the evidence of Gloria Swanson’s supple skin, it is clear that fermentation is necessary for starch breakdown and only causes problems when proteins or lactose cannot be digested (and Rodale suggests protein as the greatest cure against all ailments). The worst that could happen if protein or lactose begins to ferment is that one could get “the vapours.”

Last night’s dinner: I Survived

Pasta will not ferment in your gut and release deadly toxins that can kill you or put you in a coma. Scientifically. But Rodale protests that the scientific data provided by the medical industry is hogwash, and he knows more about other people’s medical issues than they do. He explains, “If you will follow the newspapers you will come upon an item every once in a while about someone who gets a heart attack after attending a banquet …” (really, people regularly just plopped over dead at banquets back then?) “… and it is not because it’s a big meal, or that it contains fatty food. It is because the particular individual overly indulged in bread and pastry and other wheat-containing food. Satchmo was lucky. He must have had great basic strength to withstand the attack.”

Seriously, the attack of digesting spaghetti.

What Armstrong said about the incident reveals a slightly different story: “I wasn’t in no coma like some of the boys reported. You gotta have money to go into a coma. I was only in a trance.”

I don’t think he’s talking about having enough money for lots of spaghetti.

Bernard Shaw’s diet was profiled in detail – taken from a large card written by Shaw’s wife giving instructions to hotels and restaurants as to her husband’s choices regarding food. Shaw was mostly a vegetarian, although he was known to take liver tablets, claiming they were medicine. Generally this particular book is very favorable toward the vegetarian diet, and praises Shaw’s adherence to fresh fruits, salads, beans and nuts.

Rodale begins to lose all respect for Shaw when he reads an article in a 1958 issue of the New York World Telegram that describes the famous author eating a hot dog during his last visit to the U.S. “Shaw liked to be contrary and probably just did it to shock reporters,” he proposes. “Yet he could have sunk his teeth into a nice piece of roast beef, rather than into a salted and chemicalized frankfurter. Frankfurters and all other preserved meats contain sodium nitrate, a deadly chemical fertilizer.”

Now, I think we all agree that hot dogs are made up of weird things that probably aren’t good for you. Recently there was that flurry of panicked articles online spreading the scary news that bacon and other cured meats cause cancer, because of nitrates. If you pay attention to nutrition and ingredients, this wasn’t new information – sodium nitrate has long been a controversial chemical additive — but the short lived hysteria over cancer-causing bacon proves how restructuring old information into frightening titles can pull in a lot of clicks.

It turns out the science isn’t very clear on the subject, and the portion of bacon or cured meat one would have to eat to die of nitrate poisoning was enormous (you’d have to eat at least a pound of bacon a day), so people quickly forgot about it. Also, it’s actually vegetables that contain the highest levels of nitrates. Don’t tell Rodale or Gloria Swanson.

What’s really interesting about the Shaw chapter is that this is the turning point in the narrative when Rodale reveals how unreasonably strict he truly is about food – and that he’s generally a dick to vegetarians as well.

“But vegetarians go for puddings and pastry because they need some thrill in a meal. Meat does that for me.”

Rodale further explains what assholes he and his wife are when they go out to eat in restaurants. “I am reminded of my visit to a London vegetarian restaurant in May, 1958. When my wife and I came in, our eyes were stunned …” (the writing is truly this terrible throughout the book) “…by the array of pastries in and on the showcases. The menu had ice cream and a staggering list of unhealthful desserts. We walked out.”

I am not convinced that he didn’t start up an argument about sugar with the waitstaff before leaving the restaurant. I get the sense that he’s the sort of customer who insists his meat be cooked in a separate oven from the one used to make cakes and bread.

Shaw’s vegetarian diet was far from what Rodale would consider perfect, however, so Shaw gets plenty of shit for his dietary choices. He ate oatmeal and cereals (wheat!), oranges and grapefruit (too much citrus) and macaroni, spaghetti (attack!) mayonnaise, and soups (too much salt).

Rodale concludes, “Shaw lived to be 94, but could have lived another 10 or 20 years if he had watched his diet more closely.”

20 years? Shaw could have lived to be 114 years old if he hadn’t eaten some oatmeal, pastries and soup? Okay. Okay, the author is insane, which explains a lot.

It’s all downhill from here. Rodale loses his damn mind when writing his chapter on Napoleon, which really isn’t about Napoleon at all. The first short paragraph does mention Napoleon, surmising that if the emperor had lived in modern times, he would probably be a vitamin-taker and would use the forces of government to “urge this habit on his citizens.” When it comes to vitamins, Rodale is suddenly supportive of government regulation of our diets. He then forgets all about Napoleon and becomes enraged when he remembers our government is cracking down on vitamin pills and mineral compound cure-alls. “Cracking down” or “regulating,” whichever, might sound like not such a big deal if you’re a reasonable person (natural cure-alls were quite dangerous at one point, and do need to be regulated). The rest of the chapter is a rant against our government and its war against him and his vitamins.

“They called it [natural cure-alls] the most widespread form of medical quackery,” he writes, which is what sets off the mental break. “How about the quackery of needles, mutilating surgery? How about the quackery of fearfully overpriced, pauper-making surgery? How about the quackery of apathetic medical temperament, its myopic tendencies with regard to the advances in the prevention of disease? How about the quackery of the medical profession’s dog-in-the-manger contempt for chiropractic and osteopathy? How about the quackery of creating a limited supply of physicians, so as to inactivate the law of supply and demand? How about the quackery of being afraid of the preventative effects of vitamin E?”

He goes on from here. More “how about the quackery of this” and “how about the quackery of that,” one hysterical example after the other, making up a page-long paragraph. You just want him to calm down. You start to worry about him. Is he getting enough vitamin E? This was supposed to be a chapter about Napoleon’s great eating habits, and it’s turned into a crazed rant about how the government and doctors are trying to murder us and destroy our country with fluoride in the water (I knew fluoride would come up!) and “distorting medical statistics.”

1961 advertisement
Vintage advertisement from 1961 from Sugar Information Inc.

The author’s unhinged anger at “organized” medicine and its quackery of needles and surgery, and the government’s insistence on monitoring natural cures, may partially explain why he chose to end his book with a confusing reflection on what he feels was Hitler’s worst sin – sugar.

First of all, the chapter is straight to the point, entitled, “Hitler and Sugar.” Which I may have laughed at a bit too long, in part because the book has really gone off the rails now and it seems no editor was willing to look it over any further.

Rodale quotes one of Hitler’s associates, Ernst Hanfstaengl (Lippincott), who wrote about the Fuhrer’s habits, “He had the most incredible sweet tooth of any man I have ever met and could never have enough of his favorite Austrian cakes heaped with whipped cream. At one meal I thought I would treat him to a bottle of Prinz Metternich’s best Gewürztraminer (wine). I was called out of the room to the telephone and as I came back, I caught him putting a heaping spoonful of sugar into the glass. I pretended I had not seen and he drank the concoction with evident relish.”

Ew, Hitler, that’s gross.

It appears that it was a common practice to try and keep the sugar bowl out of Hitler’s reach at the dining table when wine was being served, because it was such a revolting habit.

At first, I underestimated the depths to which Rodale would plummet to prove his point about how dangerous sugar is for the mind and body. The Hitler chapter concludes, “Such a diet must have severely taxed his body’s vitamin B resources, thus weakening his entire nervous system. This, probably, is one of the basic reasons he became such a trigger-brained maniac.” Probably was one of the basic reasons? Oh, well that’s fine, but there’s no way this author could possibly suggest that the Holocaust was caused by sugar, though, right?

“Millions of people may have died solely because Hitler was a crazed sugar drunkard, jumping off the handle at the slightest provocation, making precipitate and unwise decisions that eventually caused his own and Germany’s disastrous defeat.”

Oh, shit.

Well, there you have it. Had Hitler just taken care of his diet, he could have lived to be 114 years old and Germany would never have been defeated in the war.

Poisons from the "Foods Industry" prevail today
Poisons from the “Foods Industry” prevail today

To be clear, I’m not mocking clean and healthy eating. It’s the presumptuous, high-handed, anti-science nutritional extremism that deserves criticism. “Good health,” unlike vegetarianism, is not a moral issue. And this isn’t a phenomenon limited to the 60s, or some old fashioned white nonsense — people are still fighting over whether or not it’s safe to eat wheat, dairy, soy, meat, sugar, white flour, dyes, preservatives, salt, corn syrup, sugar and so on, when maybe the wisest course of action is to focus on the food on your own plate.

To recommend that people think about what they are eating is normally a safe, well-intentioned message. The message in this book is blurred, however, by the fact that whatever safe substance the author is surviving on – probably rain water he gathers in the palms of his hands, grain alcohol and assorted leaves – is depleting his brain of the necessary fats and sugars required to make a calm and reasonable argument.

Available used on Amazon for 69 cents.


Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance is a writer and editor living in New York, often referred to as the "dour voice of gloom." Email rebecca@theflounce.com (for a good time) or for more appropriate reasons, like pitching an article, whether it's about irreverent pop culture or a damn serious social issue.