It would be safe to assume that there’s nothing much left to be said about Gwyneth Paltrow’s self-appointed role as America’s holistic adviser. After all, what’s not to trash about a glamorous actress who fixates on having the cleanest GI tract south of 14th Street? We’ve entered a moment in which it’s perfectly acceptable to talk, if not boast, about the purity of one’s digestive functions, as Diddy did when he recently Twittered minute-by-minute details of his “spiritual” 48-hour juice fast. But while it’s easy, and cathartic, to laugh at skinny, wealthy celebrities who preach the benefits of dietary deprivation, we may be overlooking something amid all the cackling: They could be the perfect food-advice purveyors for our less than bountiful economic times.
There’s historic precedent here. During the Great Depression, as FDR struggled and failed to pass his own health-care overhaul, organized medicine and its smug practitioners were prime targets for populist anger. New York became the nexus of an alternative-health backlash led by Bernarr Macfadden. His magazine Physical Culture, published at 64th and Broadway, was its bible. (Physical Culture was sort of like Paltrow’s holistic-lifestyle website Goop.com crossed with Muscle and Fitness: It printed vegetarian menus alongside how-to pieces on building massive quads.) Macfadden’s main idea—one echoed by Gwyneth, Diddy, and anyone who has completed a Blueprint or Master cleanse—was that an empty stomach is the path to detoxification and wellness. Issues of Physical Culture were filled with testimonials from readers swearing that fasting had cured everything from arthritis to asthma. Notables like Eleanor Roosevelt stopped by to have themselves photographed slurping cheap pea soup with Macfadden at one of his many whole-grain restaurants. Clark Gable shared details of his spartan breakfasts in Physical Culture, while Fay Wray divulged her passion for vegetable juice. The combination of star power and raw-food recipes worked; in 1933, the worst year of the Depression, Physical Culture was selling hundreds of thousands of copies each month. Perhaps there’s something about losing one’s money that makes one want to take better care of one’s body.
But the end of the Depression (and arrivals of penicillin and World War II) ended America’s first love affair with low-cal preventive medicine. Next came the steady rise of the pharma-industrial complex with its ever more expensive and elaborate after-the-fact treatments. Not to overstate this, but overconsumption just isn’t healthy, and, trendy or not, underconsumption is. Recent research has shown that while calorie restriction may or may not extend your life to 100 years—Macfadden expected to live to 150 but fell 63 years short—it could improve your memory and guard against diseases like Alzheimer’s.
People tend to have one of two dietary reactions in a recession. They break out the sweat pants, lapse into an orgy of comfort food, and wait for things to pass. Or, like readers of Physical Culture—and, yes, Goop.com—they see opportunity in a crisis. Many more people are going to lose their health insurance before anything approaching universal coverage gets passed. Meanwhile, we might all be better off if we literally tightened our belts and followed the stars for a while instead.