Introducing the Fad Diet Hall Of Fame: For the next few installments, The Anti-Diet Project will be exploring some of history’s legendary and infamous fad diets, and the people behind them. These are the origins of some of today’s most popular health trends and food beliefs. Some of these fads are incredibly strange — and all are uncomfortably familiar. And no one is more bizarre and appropriate to kick this series off with than Sylvester Graham.
In 2014, Honey Maid launched a new and wildly successful marketing approach with its “This Is Wholesome” campaign. Since then, the country’s oldest and largest graham cracker brand has been advertising its product with ads featuring immigrant families, interracial families, blended families, families with same-gender parents, and more. Honey Maid continues to grow its progressive brand ethos with things like the #NotBroken series, marking Stepfamily Day, and for Love Day, a video featuring gay and trans children coming out to their parents, all underscored with the unequivocal message that This Is Wholesome.
Savvy marketing or not, it’s hard not to enjoy these ads (I defy you to get through the Love Day video without bursting into sobs). And there’s an added thrill — a not entirely wholesome one — when one imagines what Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the graham cracker, would think of them, and of the product that still bears his name. This was a man who defined a wholesome life as one free of sexual acts or even thoughts, of emotional excitement or pleasure, and above all, free of flour.
For decades, his puritanical diet swept the nation into a bland fervor, with thousands abstaining from rich or pleasurable foods, like meat, caffeine, and even pepper, all in the name of eating themselves clean. He inspired both American veganism and the first anti-sugar crusade. He also engendered the myth that masturbation causes blindness and insanity. He was first respected as a diet and social reformer, and then demeaned as a zealous crackpot. Today, his name appears only in the cookie aisle, but in his day Sylvester Graham had the dietary rigor of Gwyneth Paltrow and the bombasity of Donald Trump. He was one of America’s earliest diet gurus and perhaps the most influential of all time. His followers, the Grahamites, dissipated after Graham’s demise in the 1860s, but anyone who’s ever quit white bread and pasta, cut out coffee, or declared a belief in “clean eating” is — whether they know it or not — still spreading the gospel of Graham.
Sylvester Graham was born in West Suffield, CT in 1794, a decade which would later be recognized as the start of the Second Great Awakening. Historians still argue over why this religious movement began and grew to such enormity — the post-revolution population boom, the pendulum swinging against contemporary religious models — but its influence on American religion and secular society is undisputed. It was during this era that the Mormon and Seventh-day Adventist churches were created, both of which put an emphasis on physical purity at their core, specifically through the abstinence from many foods, as well as alcohol and tobacco. Thus, the temperance movement began, restricting or banning alcohol in regions throughout the country. These years also saw the early emergence of women’s rights advocacy, as well as the growing force of abolition. This age was all about defining what was good and moral and pure — and then becoming the most pure person you can possibly be.
Graham was a prime candidate for leadership during this era of righteousness. Truly, his origin story reads like a Marvel-comic-meets-morality play: He was one of 17 children; his father was 70 when he was born and died when Graham was two years old. His mother apparently suffered from an unnamed mental illness, and after his father’s death, Graham spent the remainder of his childhood bouncing between homes of various relatives and family friends. One of his guardians owned a tavern where Graham was made to do chores. Author Karen Iacobbo writes, in her chapter on Graham in Vegetarian America: A History, that, “early exposure to drunkenness made an impression on the boy that lasted a lifetime.” He never drank, and he was described as a sickly child and feeble youth, both of which made him something of an outcast amongst his peers. He was artistic, sensitive, and passionate, and due to his frequent illnesses and de facto orphan status, he was often kept out of school and social situations.
Still, as he grew older, his oddball persona evolved into that of a charismatic — though not a popular one. Hoping to become a minister, he enrolled at Amherst Academy in his late twenties, where, “...it became evident that Graham was an outstanding, if unusual, orator,” writes Iacobbo. But his arrogance and strong opinions were evidently so repellent to his classmates that they circulated false rumors that he’d sexually assaulted a woman, in order to get him expelled. (Note: I categorize these allegations as false because every source which mentions them adds that it was quickly revealed this was a group effort orchestrated by fellow students — all male, of course.) Graham had a nervous breakdown after his expulsion, fled to Rhode Island to recover, and began studying theology on his own.
Meanwhile the Second Great Awakening grew larger, more expansive, its moralistic message leaking out of the churches and into the mainstream. Christian revivals drew the converts and the curious alike, their brash, compelling preachers spreading word across the growing country that Christ’s second coming was imminent, and society must rid itself of all evil-doing — and evil-doers — and soon. Temperance took hold. Anti-immigrant sentiment turned against the massive influx of new Irish- and German-Americans, who were stereotyped as drunks, polluting the nation with alcoholism. Treatises on diet began popping up here and there, some arguing that indulgence in food was even worse than that of alcohol. “For every reeling drunkard that disgraces our country,” wrote professor Charles Caldwell, “it contains a hundred gluttons.”
Graham was now working as an itinerant preacher before accepting a position with a temperance society in Pennsylvania. There, he began lecturing on the deleterious effects of alcohol, though, by now, he was becoming more interested in diet than booze. Possibly due to his own lifelong sickliness, he became convinced that improper eating was the cause of all human illness and suffering. Then he met William Metcalfe, an English clergyman who’d recently established America’s first vegetarian church, preaching that meat was the cause of mankind’s spiritual downfall. Meeting Metcalfe, it seems, was the catalyst that would rocket Graham into legend. His fervent beliefs about food and health now seemed validated by nothing less than the Holy Bible. His zealous faith in God and his disdain of human indulgence coalesced into a dietary ministry that would change the way Americans ate, forever.
“It happens every 90 years,” says Ruth Engs, Professor Emeritus of Applied Health Science at Indiana University, and the author of Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform. There was the First Great Awakening in the early-mid 18th century, the Second Great Awakening, a third in the early 20th century, and the most recent, which began in the 1970s. “These are all religious revivals, and out of them always seems to come health reforms. People decide the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and they want to bring the United States back to a perfect golden age. It’s Trump, ‘make America great again.’” The current wave began with the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the Christian right in the 1970s, says Engs. The corresponding health reforms included the rise of aerobics classes, smoke-free environments, the war on drugs, and, of course, the rehashing of centuries-old diet trends, like low-fat, low-carb, and sugar-free foods.
As with all health movements, not every trend is illogical. It’s just extreme. It’s not about moderation but elimination or abstinence. It’s tangled up in moral panic, catalyzed by things like war or epidemic. By the time Graham’s dietary beliefs congealed, the country’s new religious fervor and social conservatism had reached a fever pitch; Americans were primed for a leader like him to come along and tell them how to purify themselves and their nation. Then came cholera, and now they were desperate.
“This was the first cholera epidemic in the United States,” says Engs. The disease had already killed hundreds of thousands of people in India and Europe by the time it reached the US in 1832. It would kill many more before scientists discovered that cholera was caused by a bacterium, and spread via contaminated water (all too easily in the days before public sewage systems were installed). Back then, it was a terrifying mystery, until Graham and his fellow reformers stepped in to name the cause: not pollution, but self-pollution.
“They were saying, ‘Well, shit, if you get cholera, it means that you’ve been doing certain things. You’re having sex outside of marriage, you’re smoking, you’re drinking alcohol,’” says Engs. And, above all, you’re eating improperly. “Graham actually wrote a whole book on cholera and how to prevent it. You don’t drink coffee or tea, or eat raw vegetables. Now, the point about raw vegetables was probably good advice he gave, in terms of cholera.” Cooking would kill the bacterium, and many other foodborne pathogens. Certainly, Graham didn’t know that then. He believed that cholera was caused by, “a particular acute manifestation of overstimulation of the stomach.” Therefore, food should be soft, bland, devoid of strong flavors or flavors that might excite or stimulate a person. He ate this way, and he didn’t get cholera, after all. Therefore, cooked (what we’d now consider overcooked) vegetables became a central element in his dietary creed, which he preached in packed lecture halls across the country, drawing thousands at a time. And thanks to this incredibly lucky coincidence, his word soon became gospel.
Nothing too crisp or firm, no meat, no caffeine, no spices or seasoning at all, including salt and pepper. Things like mustard and vinegar were also far too flavorful and therefore banished from the Graham diet. Dairy was generally discouraged, but when it came to individual dairy products, it seems the more enjoyable the food the worse it was: Milk was questionable, but acceptable if used very sparingly. Cream, when, “not more than 12 hours from the cow” was only moderately objectionable. Butter or any butter-based sauces, though, were, “execrable compounds, more fit for the soap-boiler’s vat than the human stomach!” wrote Graham (exclamation his). “It would not be easy to measure the evil which these vile dishes cause. They are abominable preparations and ought to be regarded with deep abhorrence.”
It was bread, though, that would become Graham’s most renowned target, and his longest lasting legacy. Wheat, in its whole state was a pure, god-given source of nourishment. But commercial white flour was an atrocity. This was wheat that had been “tortured.” Graham’s treatise on breadmaking describes it as bruised, injured, adulterated, poisoned, separated from its nutrients and then ground and baked into, “the most miserable trash that can be imagined, in the form of bread.” And that’s just on the first three pages. It’s 131 pages long.
Engs points out that Graham was not exactly wrong in his suspicion that white flour was not very nutritious. But that was only part of the problem. Flour’s true crime was being used as an ingredient in decadent, delicious, and therefore sinful, foods. “White flour was used for cakes and mixed with sugar,” Engs says. “This was thought to pollute the body...and the body was considered the temple of god. You needed to keep it pure.”
Graham created his own form of flour (which is essentially the same as whole-grain flour, but ground more coarsely and unsifted), which became another staple of his diet. His growing group of acolytes, known as the Grahamites, used it to create graham bread and, indeed, graham crackers. Naturally, the original recipe would have no sweetener, and would almost certainly not have been served with marshmallows and chocolate.
Diet was the main path to purity according to Graham, but again it wasn’t simply about physical health. It all came back to sinful thoughts, sexual urges, and other unholy impulses — all of which, he believed could be amplified or curtailed by certain foods. Obviously, one had to abstain from other polluting activities and make rigorous efforts to stay clean, in every sense of the word. Chastity was a given outside of marriage, and even married couples should abstain from sex except for once a month, for the sake of procreation (orgasm was harmful to the body, and any loss of semen was equivalent to a much greater loss of blood, he falsely claimed). But masturbation was the most pernicious sexual scourge, ruining lives and rending the fabric of society.
In one of his (many, many) lectures on chastity, Graham writes that “self-pollution,” as he called it, “is actually a very great and rapidly increasing evil in our country.” He described in graphic detail the physical illness, emotional distress, and literal insanity brought on by masturbation. Despite his adamant desire to end the epidemic of “solitary vice,” Graham was sometimes decried as a pervert himself for speaking of these things to public audiences — of both men and women. He may have been the first to openly acknowledge the existence of female masturbation, leading some to call him an early sex educator. But his beliefs that, “it is possible to deprave even a woman,” were not exactly educative. Indeed, in warning that, “terrible evils of this kind have existed in female boarding schools in other countries,” Graham may himself have been more “stimulating” than he realized.
For over a decade, Grahamism grew in popularity. A prolific writer and gripping speaker, Graham’s influence can hardly be understated. His practices were woven into the growing new religious factions, like the Adventist churches. His work directly influenced the next generation of diet reformers, like the legendary Kellogg brothers. But all fads must fade, and by the 1840s, some began to stray from the Graham diet — and others revolted outright.
In 1840 Oberlin College hired David Campbell, a Grahamite, to implement the diet at the school. At first, it was embraced by both the faculty and student body, though in less than a year, the backlash began. A professor was fired after bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and refusing to give it up. Students complained of hunger and began sneaking into town to supplement their meals, while others simply transferred out. In March 1841, the students gathered in a mass protest, ousting Campbell and claiming the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system.”
The Oberlin incident was probably a symptom of Graham’s downfall, rather than the cause. “I think people just got sick and tired of this bland diet,” Engs says. Graham may have avoided cholera himself, but he didn’t manage to cure the world of the disease. No amount of whole grain had rid America of sin and quieted its citizens into an Edenesque peace. Graham’s diet failed to deliver, and now, Engs says, “People began not liking him [again]. They considered him a crank.” People tired of his long-winded, rambling speeches and imperious attitude. He still had some die-hard followers, but all of a sudden, the general population seemed to recognize the man behind the curtain.
Graham died in 1851, at the age of 57. No official cause of death exists, but his relatively early death persuaded the last remaining Grahamites to quit the diet. The Civil War effectively punctuated the end of the Second Great Awakening and its corresponding health craze. The National Biscuit Company (later known as Nabisco) began producing graham crackers in the 1880s, defiling them with all that stimulating sugar, and even worse, that tortured, white flour. But Graham’s writing lived on, and his work would be revived again and again and again, echoing eternally in America’s cultural consciousness and kitchens. He was our first and foremost diet guru, our first clean-eating advocate, and each one who came after has him to thank for their livelihood. Thanks to Graham, we are always looking for a way to eat, not merely right, but righteously.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.