About 12 years ago, my boss at GQ magazine awarded me an unwanted promotion. I had been a staff writer who interviewed TV starlets; I was now the health editor. The advancement came as a surprise, not only because I enjoyed chatting with the Rebecca Gayhearts of the world, but because I knew almost nothing about diet and exercise. I was fairly certain that America's love-hate relationship with fitness somehow wound backward through the neon and spandex step-aerobics era of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda, past the jogging craze and health clubs and shiny Nautilus machines. Beyond that? Ummm . . . hadn’t President Eisenhower deputized Jack LaLanne to invent exercise in the 1950s? And what were these diets all the women I knew were talking about: Atkins and the Zone?
Time magazine, which in its early years covered Macfadden like In Touch stalks Angelina Jolie, nicknamed him “Body Love” Macfadden.
Faced with the prospect of acting as a professional health expert, I did what most magazine editors do in a pinch: I hunted up old magazines to steal ideas from. Fortuitously, I spotted a stack of crumbling issues of a publication named Physical Culture in a junk shop in Ithaca, New York. I flipped open the topmost copy, dated September 1925. The table of contents, printed during the heyday of flappers and speakeasies, read like a health bulletin beamed back from a more salubrious future:
Raw Foods Cured My T.B.
Fresh Air + Diet + Exercise = a Good Job
My Fat Is Going Away and I'm Coming Back
The Havoc Wrought by Beauty Doctors
75 Billion Cigarettes a Year Sapping the Nation's Strength
Other issues contained stories about yoga, birth control, weight lifting, homeopathy—and advertisements for an alternative-health wonderland called the Physical Culture Hotel, which had once existed only an hour's drive from where I stood. I carried the entire pile to the cash register, sensing, as many Physical Culture readers had long ago, that the magazine was going to change my life. Its editor, I noticed, was named Bernarr Macfadden.
Macfadden was a self-taught fitness guru. As a teenager, he had cured his own tuberculosis through a radical exercise and diet regimen. After founding Physical Culture, the most prominent advertisement for promoting his methods was his own powerful physique, which he would strip down to display at a moment’s notice. (Time magazine, which in its early years covered Macfadden like In Touch stalks Angelina Jolie, nicknamed him “Body Love” Macfadden.) He thought Americans ate too much and exercised too little, and he tried to set an example by walking 20 miles to his office each morning and avoiding food entirely on Mondays.
Through Physical Culture, Macfadden became the Pied Piper for the country’s invisible army of fitness buffs. Nearly 50 million copies were sold between the World Wars. Writers and editors for the magazine were accosted in the office halls by militant vegetarians and anti-vaccination brigades, as well as legions of strongmen who demanded that staffers feel their bulging muscles or watch them bang out over-the-transom pull-ups. No telephone book was safe from being torn in half. After one particularly well-developed young male model from Brooklyn won Physical Culture's “World's Most Handsome Man” contest twice, Macfadden retired the award. “What's the use of holding them?” he said. “Charles Atlas will win every time.”
After the 50th person to whom I showed my copies of Physical Culture had the same slackjawed reaction—“I can’t believe this thing actually existed”—I knew that I had to write Macfadden’s biography. And the more details I learned about his Zelig-like life story, the more incredible it seemed. He’d parlayed his Physical Culture success into a $30 million media empire that included True Story, the first confessional magazine, and the New York Evening Graphic, arguably the sleaziest tabloid newspaper ever published. (It’s where Walter Winchell launched the modern gossip industry.) By February 1933, at the worst moment of the Great Depression, Macfadden could lay uncontested claim to being the most important alternative health figure in America, the sort of notable whose lunches with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, held at one of his eight budget health-food restaurants, merited coverage in The New York Times. (E.R. was at that time a Macfadden Publications employee too, as editor of his parenting magazine Babies, Just Babies.) On a Rome visit with Physical Culture contributor Benito Mussolini, Macfadden invited 40 Fascist cadets to train at his Physical Culture Hotel near Rochester. Il Duce accepted, and the young Italians spent two months deprived of pasta and red wine while picking up the rudiments of weightlifting.
When I sat down and sifted through the mountains of information I eventually unearthed on Macfadden, two things became clear. First, that beyond all the crazy stories, he was easily the most influential figure in the history of American health, non-medical division. Many of his causes that seemed shocking in the early part of the 20th century—sex education, eliminating white sugar and bleached flour from one’s diet, strength training for women, rehabilitating heart-attack victims with aerobic exercise—are now taken for granted. Excise the chitchat and magical thinking from diet books such as The South Beach Diet and the Skinny Bitch series, and the advice they contain could have come straight from Macfadden’s 1912 Encyclopedia of Physical Culture.
The second theme that emerged was that Macfadden firmly believed that any malady could be cured through radical changes in exercise and diet. In the latter case, the shift usually meant extreme calorie restriction. In Macfadden’s world, one not only starved a fever, but also a cold, a cough, hiccups, psoriasis, cancer, and just about everything else.
After two years of trying to get inside Macfadden’s head, it was probably inevitable that a question would lodge in my own mind: Does any of this stuff really work? It seemed only fair that to understand his thinking, I should also sample his treatments. One of Macfadden’s favorite prescriptions was a “natural diet” comprised primarily of raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts—an excellent tonic, he claimed, for exhaustion and sleeplessness, two plagues that inevitably visit an author whose book is several months overdue. For two weeks, I decided, I would eat 99 percent raw.
Macfadden’s regimen of uncooked foods has little in common with gourmet “raw” dishes you may have seen chefs like Charlie Trotter alchemize on morning TV. It’s basically a diet of exclusion. Anything pasteurized (milk, cheese) is off-limits. Coffee is doubly bad, as it requires both roasting and brewing. Rice, pasta, almost all cereals and soups—nope. All seasonings except a little salt are verboten. The shopping list that I took with me to Whole Foods on my first morning of raw fooding consisted of: organic fruits and vegetables; raw, unsalted nuts; unpasteurized honey; green tea (to make sun tea); some whole grains that could be softened by soaking in cold water; and a few varieties of legumes that I would need to sprout to render edible. This is a process by which beans are moistened and left in the sun to start growing into plants. It is about as appetizing as you might imagine.
The first few days weren't bad. I hoovered green tea to stave off caffeine headaches and ate bowls of berries with twice-soaked buckwheat, the texture of which can charitably be described as gooey. I purchased so much fruit each day that my produce man must have thought I was canning preserves.
By Day 5, though, the tremendous surge in my fiber intake was wreaking havoc on my insides. Things were shifting. I kept having visions of icebergs cracking and falling into the sea. Eventually, the discomfort subsided, but meals had become chores. My sprouted legumes tasted like grass. You know how small children chew with their mouths open, as if their jaws were hinged, when forced to eat something they don't want? I found myself doing that a lot.
And yet…I couldn't deny that my body was kind of loving Macfadden’s natural diet. Morning runs felt smooth and easy, and I had no difficulty pushing on for an extra mile or three. After a week, a fruity smell like green apples seemed to be following me everywhere. The odor, as it turned out, was my perspiration. (Slightly freaked out, I emailed an eminent diet doctor to ask what was going on. Her response: “You are what you eat, Mark.”) My skin morphed, too, clearing up and taking on a youthful softness and glow. I wasn't sleeping any more than I had previously, but I seemed to be sleeping more deeply. I woke up every day at 5 a.m., ready to go, and was able to write without the aid of coffee for the first time since high school.
Losing weight on a raw diet is easy, not least because given the choice between my hundredth handful of organic raisins or just skipping a meal, I often picked the latter. Macfadden was right: Divorced from spices and familiar flavors, you do lose your cravings surprisingly quickly. After 14 days, I'd dropped eight pounds.
In fact, I was so impressed with the results that I couldn’t wait to sample Macfadden’s all-time favorite diet next: five days consuming nothing but water.
Mark Adams is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in many of America’s leading magazines, including GQ, Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Fortune and National Geographic Adventure, where he is a contributing editor. Adams wrote New York magazine’s popular column “It Happened Last Week” and once ran 26 miles alone through the streets of Manhattan for an assignment. Originally from Oak Park, Illinois, he now lives near New York City with his wife and their three sons. This is his first book.