A New Year's crash diet is a curious thing — it signifies a desire for self-improvement, but a complete failure to understand human nature. It's difficult to permanently change the way you eat, and it's impossible to cut unhealthy food out of a diet altogether. That is to say, most adults who have made a New Year's resolution to change their way of eating forever understand on some level that their resolution is doomed to fail in a matter of weeks, or days, or hours.
In fact the inevitable failure to keep up on a diet is, in a way, the whole point of the diet. A diet is an attempt to exercise control over your own body, and our inability to maintain full control is a humbling reminder of the failures of the flesh.
You can't just quit eating food the way someone can quit smoking or alcohol. You don't need cigarettes or single-malt scotch to survive, but you can only go a few days, at most, without food. Aside from death, food is the one constant of biological life. And our relentless need to satiate our hunger creates a tendency for us to compromise the best parts of ourselves — our values, our spirit, our strength — in exchange for a good meal.
Nico Slate's upcoming book from University of Washington Press, Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet, spotlights food as the quintessential human frailty. Subtitled Eating with the World in Mind, Diet considers the life of one of the most important moral leaders of the 20th century by examining the foods he chose (and chose not) to eat.
If you know anything about Mahatma Gandhi, you likely know that he fasted as a way to bring about significant change in his nation. But Gandhi also entertained a continually changing array of opinions about certain types of foods. He might decide that salt is bad for his constitution, for instance, and he might then start speaking publicly against salt. And then his fickleness might rear its head again: "'I have lived for more than forty years without condiments,' [Gandhi] wrote in 1945, 'and for nearly thirty without salt.' He admitted, 'It might have been a mistake on my part.'"
In fact, most of Gandhi's sudden changes were only temporary, a whim brought on by a fleeting realization. Slate takes the position that these dietary quirks weren't a flaw of Gandhi's — in fact, he argues, Gandhi is stronger because he entertained strong (and often random) opinions about types of food.
His dietary experiments taught Gandhi to be humble, and his humility drove his tolerance. His culinary cosmopolitanism grew alongside and helped inspire other forms of inclusivity — especially in regards to race, class, gender, and caste.
Let's be clear: not all of these decisions were well-considered. Gandhi believed that chocolate and/or heated foods resulted in lascivious thoughts and "the desire for bodily gratification," as Slate so gently puts it. He was on a raw food diet near the end of his life for reasons that make no sense.
Gandhi takes a more strident position with other foods — he rightfully decries the systems of slavery that made the sugar trade so profitable, for instance. But that doesn't make him a health nut, either. Though he kept up the no-sugar rule for years, Gandhi also "associated sweets with hospitality."
At times, Slate argues, Gandhi's war on food was merely a stand-in for a greater tension. He sought "liberation from worldly attachments" by, in part, abandoning any human emotion. He argued that "Nature intended man to be a vegetarian," and he did not feel comfortable in a new city until he identified a good vegetarian restaurant where he could eat.
Gandhi didn't lord his vegetarianism over others — Slate mentions that Gandhi welcomes meat-eaters just as often and with the same enthusiasm that he brings to other vegetarians. And likewise, Gandhi didn't like to have his hypocrisies broadcast around the world. When his health flagged, Gandhi allowed himself to consume animal products that he never would have consumed while he was of sound body.
Slate doesn't manage to find a unified theory of diets in Gandhi's life. Instead, he reveals a delightfully human tangle of contradictions and pride and failure and confidence. His Gandhi is much more approachable and understandable than any of the other biographies of the man that I've read.
I would enjoy reading more biographies like this one — books that trace the eating life of major transformational figures. It makes the protagonist much more understandable and relatable to know that they're just as bizarre as anyone else. What Slate does here is remarkable: he finds a new angle on one of the most consequential leaders of the last century, and then he fills in that angle with nuts and milk and fruit. You don't see many portraits like this one, constructed out of all the food that made the man.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant