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How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years

by Howard J. Ruff
Warner Books, 248 pp., $2.75 (paper)

The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise

by Nathan Pritikin, by Patrick M. McGrady Jr.
Grosset and Dunlap, 425 pp., $12.95

As nearly everyone in the world with a dollar to his name must know by now, American currency, like so many other once trusted values, has fallen into a long and agitated decline relative to gold, Swiss francs, bottles of wine, rare books, barrels of oil, old Mickey Mouse toys—nearly anything so long as it doesn’t bear the Great Seal of the United States. Howard Ruff, the Mormon author of How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, thinks that “much of the American wealth is an illusion which is being secretly gnawed away and much of it will be completely wiped out in the near future.” Ruff’s book, published a year or so ago, has been one of the decade’s great best sellers—it has sold some 500,000 copies in hard cover and there are now more than a million paperbacks in print, many times more than all the books written in the same period by all the economists in America combined and nearly as many as Dr. Tarnower’s no less premonitory The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, last year’s number one self-help best seller, which has now been published in a huge paperback edition of 1.75 million copies.

Dr. Tarnower says that our typical American diet of refined sugars and starches, animal fats and dairy products, is killing us. It causes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gall bladder attacks, arthritis, and high blood pressure. It makes us look and feel awful. He tells us that Navy pilots captured by the North Vietnamese left their dungeons in better shape, according to a US Navy study, than pilots who stayed home. Nathan Pritikin, a nutritionist, has written a more rigorous diet book, which also includes an exercise program. It has sold nearly as many copies as Dr. Tarnower’s and it lists among the author’s satisfied disciples Twiggy, Cesar Chavez, Peter Sellers, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is even grimmer than Dr. Tarnower’s book.

The typical American diet, Pritikin says, quoting the McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, “may be as profoundly damaging to the nation’s health as the widespread contagious diseases of the early part of the century.” Pritikin wants to “declare war on processed foods, fats, sugars, proteins, salt, caffeine and non-foods.” Though he and Dr. Tarnower disagree on proteins and carbohydrates—Tarnower thinks we should eat three times as much protein but only 6 percent more carbohydrates while Pritikin wants us to skip protein and eat twice the carbohydrates—they agree that the American diet is a plague arising from our feed lots and dairy farms, from mom’s apple pie and the coke machine in the school lunchroom—a plague as deadly as the one according to Howard Ruff that rises on the stench from the United States Treasury.

That so many Americans have chosen, in the past year, to concentrate their minds on three such gloomy diagnoses while so many of them are also flinging themselves around in discos and reading in the food columns of The New York Times, presumably with approval, that for $23 a head a certain restaurant will serve them “buttery rounds of puff pastry holding creamed mushrooms and moist, pearly bay scallops touched with white wine and then baked under a golden brown breadcrumb topping…a delicate walnut gâteau rich with maple flavored and chocolate flavored butter creams…” suggests not only the depths to which the language of pornography has sunk, but reveals an interesting conflict within the current American sensibility, a conflict of values and motives which, were it to occur within a single mind, might indicate serious emotional impairment. Consider with what feelings the Secretary of Agriculture might read Dr. Tarnower’s list of forbidden foods. No kidney, lima, or baked beans. No avocados, rice, or potatoes. No pasta, sausages, sugar, peanut butter, mayonnaise, candy, chocolate, cakes, pies, jams, jellies, and other preserves; no whole milk, cream, or butter. Very little alcohol and only two slices of bread a day. Will Mr. Carter’s feedgrain embargo turn out to have been an inadvertent contribution to Soviet well-being?

Africans, rising from their golden stools to pursue their regular physical activity, having enjoyed their high fiber lunches, not only aren’t as worried as Ruff says we should be about where their next meal is coming from, they don’t have to worry about the meal when it gets there. According to Pritikin they almost never get coronary artery disease, diverticulitis, colon or rectal cancer (second only to lung cancer in the United States), gall bladder inflammations, or constipation. The Tarahumara Indians whose diet is very much like the one Pritikin recommends are even better off. They run 500 miles in five days and can carry a 100-pound pack 110 miles in seventy hours even without the costly jogging outfits on which Americans spend so many of their illusory dollars. Though Dr. Tarnower’s high-protein diet reflects the sumptuous implication of its oxymoronic title (he also includes a “money saver” regime for people who can’t afford expensive proteins and suburbs), Pritikin’s diet is one that “the poorest can afford,” a diet for “the descamisados, the havenots, humble peasants: people who simply cannot afford the sauces, viands, desserts, liquors, salty appetizers, and elegant and inelegant non-foods that foster heart attacks, strokes, gout, diabetes and arthritis.”

The God-fearing Howard Ruff, who calls himself an “economic ecologist,” believes that the dollar has collapsed because we have violated the divine law of the biosphere as a whole, the natural workings of the free market. Ruff also recommends a diet, devotes in fact nearly a fifth of his short book to the absolute importance of accumulating a year’s supply of nourishing food, for when the economy collapses the supermarkets will be empty and the improvident will starve. Once his readers get their food hoards together, Ruff advises them to pack them up, together with the bags of silver and gold which they’ve exchanged for their decomposing dollars, flee the false luxury of their rotting cities, abandon their moist and pearly bay scallops together with their golden brown, buttery toppings, and wait out the apocalypse in a small town or city, preferably one with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, mostly white, ideally Mormon, heterosexual monogamists. They should liquidate their debts, call in their loans, and hole up until a relief column led by free market politicians rescues them.

But who can be sure that such relief will come? Not Ruff apparently, who notes that “56 percent of the people in this country receive tax money and are largely dependent on it,” and this does not include “workers for government contractors (Lockheed, etc.), merchants and suppliers serving government installations and military bases, and those who use government services (farmers, small businessmen, private pilots, schools, etc.), and a zillion others, including all those who are looking forward to collecting Social Security some day.” Ruff “wouldn’t bet on a significant number of these people giving back the money,” an indulgence at the expense of America’s industrious remnant which he compares, predictably, to a cancer “that has spread through more than 56 percent of society,” not counting the rugged individualists who run Chrysler and the faltering free enterprisers waiting in line behind them for similar government support or the contractors who are hoping to dig holes in the desert for the MX missile, or the businessmen who will supply their warheads, categories that Ruff leaves out of his zillions.

As for the immediate future, Ruff expects “exploding inflation, price controls, erosion of savings (eventually to nothing), a collapse of private as well as government pension programs (including Social Security), vastly more government regulation to control your life, and eventually an international monetary holocaust which will sweep all paper currencies down the drain and turn the world upside down.” Despite these warnings he advises his readers, curiously enough, to buy bonds at their present high yields so that when interest rates fall in the coming depression they can be sold at appreciated values. The United States is like Rasputin, he thinks, nearly indestructible even after repeated attempts to poison it. But these may be only brave words. In the meantime, inflation, he says, is a euphemism for bankruptcy, the repudiation of debt through the creation of worthless paper money. Ruff thinks that the coming bankruptcy of the United States as a whole differs from that of New York City only to the extent that the federal treasury can print money, but how much longer will anyone agree to exchange things of real value for the government’s increasingly worthless paper?

To find ourselves in this woeful situation when we are already threatened by the actual cancers, blocked arteries, diabetes, and constipation that Tarnower and Pritikin diagnose is trouble indeed, trouble that all three authors agree comes from our having violated some kind of natural order, those longstanding adaptations from which the human species has taken its appropriate shapes and rhythms. These authors are Darwinian fundamentalists, unwitting sociobiologists. They are afraid that we have violated our proper evolutionary niche, that in our Promethean willfulness we have tried to perform a mutation upon ourselves, become ourselves a kind of cancer. We are each of us, they seem to be saying, our own Love Canal. “Much of what organized religion calls sin,” Ruff writes, is the violation of certain “behavioral standards,” violations “which will destabilize society…[lead] to fiscal instability, confiscatory taxation and to inflationary ruin.” He is most disturbed by sexual misbehavior. “It may be the one factor that can cause all of [his] forecasts of [eventual] economic recovery to go astray.”

Along with the many vices they charge us with, these books include many valuable suggestions. Anyone who bought gold and silver a year ago on Ruff’s advice has already prospered well before the bad times have actually come. Anyone who can transfer his compulsiveness from gluttony to vanity will lose weight, look and feel much better by following either the Tarnower or Pritikin diet, though the latter will put him to more trouble. Both diet books are extremely repetitive. Each could be condensed to the length of a short pamphlet. But the repetitiveness is hypnotic. Suggestible readers may find that they can acquire the will to lose weight simply by letting themselves fall under the spell of these monotonous pages.

But what is interesting about these best sellers apart from the value of their specific recommendations is that some millions of Americans, prudent enough to worry about their assets and shrewd enough to have acquired them, together with still others rich enough to be plugging their arteries with expensive animal fats, are indulging that old American fantasy that virtue resides not in the social order but in the primitive, much the same pastoral fantasy into which the flower children disappeared nearly a generation ago. “There are no fat wild animals,” Pritikin says. The great success of these books suggests that the counter-culture has now broadened into unhappy middle age as millions of us jog off toward the truly natural, clutching our bags of gold and silver, our wheat germ and our low-fat cottage cheese.

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