Forging Social Connections for Longer Life

March 29th, 2012

Jane Brody has long been the personal health editor for the New York Times.  Her columns are syndicated in more than 200 major newspapers across the country.  Time Magazine called her the “High Priestess of Health.”  In her March 26, 2012 column, she wrote about the loss of her husband, and about the struggle of loneliness that ensued.  She also wrote about discovering John Robbins’ 2006 book, Healthy at 100, and finding it to be of significant value in her journey.  Read her story, and what she learned from Healthy at 100 about the healing power of healthy relationships, by clicking here.

Being Fat in America

March 30th, 2011

We can, as a society, be astoundingly cruel to people who are obese. They might be creative, caring and hopeful people, but we don’t see that. Far too often, we see only their weight.

What does it say about us that we act as though you can take the measure of a person by the size bathing suit they wear?

Maybe this partially explains why obese people are flocking to a restaurant outside Phoenix, Arizona, whose name, and I am not making this up, is the Heart Attack Grill. The restaurant, which seats 100, is often packed. It offers what owner Jon Basso calls, “an environment of acceptance to overweight customers who are typically demonized by society.”

But at this restaurant, it’s a little more than acceptance. The Heart Attack Grill literally celebrates obesity. Customers who are over 350 pounds eat for free. A scale is strategically placed at the center of the restaurant, so other diners can watch the weigh-ins. When customers exceed 350 pounds, says the restaurant’s owner, “Everybody applauds and cheers for them. A big smile comes over their face, and for once they are finally accepted. They are not picked on here.”

It’s all made to seem sexy, too. Waitresses, all of them young and slender, are dressed as scantily clad nurses, wearing high heels, thigh-high stockings, and skimpy outfits revealing lots of cleavage.

It sounds like fun.

Except when it isn’t.

A few weeks ago, the 575-pound spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill, a 29-year-old man named Blair River, died. It wasn’t a heart attack, it was pneumonia. He had been the public face of the restaurant and the star of its advertising. He was also the single father for a five-year-old girl.

At nearly 600 pounds. Blair River ate all his meals free at the restaurant.

Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso did not deny the link between the young man’s excessive weight and his tragically premature death. “I hired him to promote my food,” said Basso, “(but his) life was cut short because he carried extra weight.” Ironically, the restaurant’s motto is “Food Worth Dying For.”

Of course, no one is forcing anyone to eat at the Heart Attack Grill or to stuff themselves full of unhealthy food. It’s a free country, in theory anyway, and we’re free to eat ourselves to death if we want to do so.

Some would say that the Heart Attack Grill steps over a line, to the point of enabling dangerous food addictions. There is certainly nothing remotely resembling healthy on the menu. Customers can purchase cigarettes, but only the non-filtered type. On the wall are prominent displays advertising menu items such as “Quadruple Bypass Burgers” that carry 8,000 calories, and “Flatliner Fries” that are deep-fried in pure lard. Perhaps joking, owner Basso says, “We’re in the front lines of the battle against anorexia.”

But Blair River’s death is no joke. And it would be a mistake to make light of the medical consequences of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that obese people have a substantially higher risk not only for heart attacks, but also for diabetes, most cancers, and many other types of cardiovascular disease.

Heart Attack Grill owner Basso doesn’t plan any changes on account of the young man’s death. Scantily-clad waitresses will still regularly exhort customers to eat all they can. He’s making money, and thinks the restaurant is great fun.

But is it funny that we have become the most obese society in the history of the world? Two-thirds of the residents of the United States are now either overweight or obese. So many children are developing the most common type of diabetes that medical authorities have had to change the name of the disease. What was formerly called “adult-onset diabetes” is now called “type 2 diabetes.” It accounts for 90 percent of the diabetes in the country, and the incidence in children is skyrocketing.

It’s easy to point our fingers and pass judgment. We can blame fast food companies that aggressively market unhealthy foods to children, we can blame people who overeat for their lack of will power, and we can blame parents for feeding their kids poorly. We can blame harmful ingredients such as trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup, and we can blame the pressures of modern life that turn people into addicts of one kind or another.

We can play the blame game ad infinitum, but who does that help? Does it help those with weight problems that leave them vulnerable to disease and prone to feelings of shame?

What if we were instead to learn from those people who have taken the arduous, difficult, and ultimately joyful journey from obesity to health?

I have had the wonderfully good fortune recently to become friends with a young woman named Natala Constantine and her husband Matt. They’ve been married for seven-and-a-half years. At their wedding, Natala was morbidly obese.

She knew something about the abuse endured by obese people in our society. By then, she had lost track of the number of times she had been humiliated in public, called ugly names by strangers, and been physically hurt by people who felt entitled to treat her as less than human because of her weight.

People constantly told Natala she was lucky Matt had fallen in love with her, and that he must be amazing to be able to look past her weight.

A week after the wedding, she was diagnosed with severe diabetes. Her blood had become so acidic that her organs were shutting down, and doctors seriously doubted whether she would survive. She was 25-years-old.

Five years later, Natala was taking up to 13 different medications and as much as 200 units of insulin a day. She ate what many people would call a healthy diet — lots of animal protein, and almost no carbohydrates. She had been told that a diet high in animal protein was the only way she could control her diabetes, but it wasn’t working. She was working out at a gym for two to three hours a day, but at 5’2″ tall, she weighed close to 400 pounds.

When Natala developed an infection in her right calf, doctors told her that part of her lower right leg might need to be amputated. But then a friend, who Natala described to me as “a vegan and into yoga,” suggested that she consider a natural approach to her diabetes, and that she start to think of food as medicine. “I wanted to smash her,” Natala admits. “How dare she suggest something so simple! Didn’t she know that I had been to the best doctors, that I was on the best diet, that I was working out?”

But Natala did take her friend’s advice to heart, and decided to go on what she calls a “100-percent healthy plant-strong diet.”

“For the first three weeks,” she says, “I felt as though I was ridding myself of much more than animal products. Food had a hold on me that I could not even conceptualize prior to those three weeks. I would sit in my car and cry outside of sub shops, just wanting a tuna melt.”

It was very rough, but Natala stayed with it and the results were nothing short of miraculous. In 30 days, she was off all insulin.

The physicians she was seeing for her diabetes took a look at her numbers, were amazed, and wanted to know how she did it. “I told them I had adopted a completely plant-based diet. They didn’t seem surprised at all, and told me that plant-based diets were helping to reverse diabetes. When I asked why they had not suggested it, they told me because it isn’t practical.”

Aghast, she asked her doctor, “Do you think it’s practical to be 30 years old and lose a leg?”

She walked out of that doctor’s office and never went back. “Everything changed from that moment,” she recalls. “I slowly decreased all the other diabetes medicines I was on. I lowered my blood cholesterol without drugs. I lowered my blood pressure without drugs. I corrected my hormonal problems without drugs. Many diabetics go blind, but I reversed the nerve damage in my eyes. And that infection in my leg? It completely healed. The arthritis in my feet? It went away.”

Today, Natala Constantine has lost almost 200 pounds, is medicine-free, and continues to make great strides toward her ideal weight. Her diabetes is in complete remission. I’ve met her and I can attest that she is one of the happiest and most radiant people you could hope to meet. A concert violinist, she exudes joy.

And her husband, Matt? While Natala was dealing with diabetes, he was not only obese but also suffered from severe food allergies. Eating a few tomatoes would send him to the emergency room. His food allergies dominated his life. And now? His improvement, on a 100-percent healthy plant-strong diet, is almost as miraculous as his wife’s. A concert pianist, he has lost 90 pounds, is now a healthy weight, and his food allergies are entirely behind him.

It’s quite a world we live in it, isn’t it? On the one hand, we have the Heart Attack Grill, whose 570-pound spokesman died this month at the age of 29. On the other, we have people like Natala and Matt Constantine, who have taken a different path.

We live in a society that tends to cruelly stigmatize the obese. The Heart Attack Grill represents one form of response. It can feel empowering to turn shame into defiance. When society points its finger at you, blaming you and denying its own illness, there is a natural urge to send a message back to society with your middle finger.

But is there a healthier alternative? What about turning shame into a commitment to greater wellbeing and happiness? What about refusing to internalize society’s negative messages, and instead building a healthy life of joy, confidence, and beauty?

Cutting back on heavily sweetened beverages like sodas and juice-like drinks is a good place to start. Eating less processed foods and more whole foods is another good step. Getting exercise helps a lot. And the more of your nutrients you can get from plant sources, the better.

Eat a healthy plant-strong diet, and your body will thank you for the rest of your life.

Chocolate’s Startling Health Benefits

March 16th, 2011

The food police may find this hard to take, but chocolate has gotten a bad rap. People say it causes acne, that you should eat carob instead, that it’s junk food. But these accusations are not only undeserved and inaccurate, they falsely incriminate a delicious food that turns out to have profoundly important healing powers.

There is in fact a growing body of credible scientific evidence that chocolate contains a host of heart-healthy and mood-enhancing phytochemicals, with benefits to both body and mind.

For one, chocolate is a plentiful source of antioxidants. These are substances that reduce the ongoing cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidative reactions.

You may have heard of a type of antioxidants called polyphenols. These are protective chemicals found in plant foods such as red wine and green tea. Chocolate, it turns out, is particularly rich in polyphenols. According to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, the same antioxidant properties found in red wine that protect against heart disease are also found in comparable quantities in chocolate.

How does chocolate help to prevent heart disease? The oxidation of LDL cholesterol is considered a major factor in the promotion of coronary disease. When this waxy substance oxidizes, it tends to stick to artery walls, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But chocolate to the rescue! The polyphenols in chocolate inhibit oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

And there’s more. One of the causes of atherosclerosis is blood platelets clumping together, a process called aggregation. The polyphenols in chocolate inhibit this clumping, reducing the risks of atherosclerosis.

High blood pressure is a well known risk factor for heart disease. It is also one of the most common causes of kidney failure, and a significant contributor to many kinds of dementia and cognitive impairment. Studies have shown that consuming a small bar of dark chocolate daily can reduce blood pressure in people with mild hypertension.

Why are people with risk factors for heart disease sometimes told to take a baby aspirin every day? The reason is that aspirin thins the blood and reduces the likelihood of clots forming (clots play a key role in many heart attacks and strokes). Research performed at the department of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, found that chocolate thins the blood and performs the same anti-clotting activity as aspirin. “Our work supports the concept that the chronic consumption of cocoa may be associated with improved cardiovascular health,” said UC Davis researcher Carl Keen.

How much chocolate would you have to eat to obtain these benefits? Less than you might think. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding only half an ounce of dark chocolate to an average American diet is enough to increase total antioxidant capacity 4 percent, and lessen oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

Why, then, has chocolate gotten such a bum reputation? It’s the ingredients we add to it. Nearly all of the calories in a typical chocolate bar are sugar and fat.

As far as fats go, it’s the added fats that are the difficulty, not the natural fat (called cocoa butter) found in chocolate. Cocoa butter is high in saturated fat, so many people assume that it’s not good for your cardiovascular system. But most of the saturated fat content in cocoa butter is stearic acid, which numerous studies have shown does not raise blood cholesterol levels. In the human body, it acts much like the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.

Milk chocolate, on the other hand, contains added butterfat which can raise blood cholesterol levels. And it has less antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals than dark chocolate.

Does chocolate contribute to acne? Milk chocolate has been shown to do so, but I’ve never heard of any evidence incriminating dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate is also healthier because it has less added sugar. I’m sure you don’t need another lecture on the dangers of excess sugar consumption. But if you want to become obese and dramatically raise your odds of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, foods high in sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) are just the ticket.

Are chocolate’s benefits limited to the health of the body? Hardly. Chocolate has long been renown for its remarkable effects on human mood. We are now beginning to understand why.

Chocolate is the richest known source of a little-known substance called theobromine, a close chemical relative of caffeine. Theobromine, like caffeine, and also like the asthma drug theophylline, belong to the chemical group known as xanthine alkaloids. Chocolate products contain small amounts of caffeine, but not nearly enough to explain the attractions, fascinations, addictions, and effects of chocolate. The mood enhancement produced by chocolate may be primarily due to theobromine.

Chocolate also contains other substances with mood elevating effects. One is phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins and potentates the action of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. Phenethylamine is released in the brain when people become infatuated or fall in love.

Another substance found in chocolate is anandamide (from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means peaceful bliss). A fatty substance that is naturally produced in the brain, anandamide has been isolated from chocolate by pharmacologists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. It binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids — the psychoactive constituents in marijuana — and produces feelings of elation and exhilaration. (If this becomes more widely known, will they make chocolate illegal?)

If that weren’t enough, chocolate also boosts brain levels of serotonin. Women typically have lower serotonin levels during PMS and menstruation, which may be one reason women typically experience stronger cravings for chocolate at these times in their cycles. People suffering from depression so characteristically have lower serotonin levels that an entire class of anti-depressive medications called serotonin uptake inhibitors (including Prozac, Paxil, and Zooloft) have been developed that raise brain levels of serotonin.

Since I am known as an advocate of healthy eating, I’m often asked about my food indulgences. One of my favorite desserts is a piece of dark organic chocolate, along with a glass of a fine red wine.

I do have a policy, though, to eat only organic and/or fair trade chocolate. This is because of what I have learned about child slavery in the cocoa trade.

May your life be full of healthy pleasures.

The Dark Side of Recent Egg Headlines

March 16th, 2011

Egg lovers are rejoicing this week because the USDA, usually the last to notice anything resembling a genuine nutritional advance, has announced that eggs are much higher in vitamin D than previously thought, and also 14 percent lower in cholesterol than previously believed.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of how it is that scientific authorities could have been so wrong for so long about something as basic as the levels of vitamin D and cholesterol in eggs, the new numbers are happy news indeed for egg lovers. The egg industry is delighted to report that you can now eat up to 10 eggs a week and still stay under the recommended limit of 300 mg of cholesterol per day for healthy adults (provided, of course, that you consume no other cholesterol at all from any other source).

This is putting a sunny-side-up grin on the face of those who enjoy eating eggs and don’t fancy eating their way to a heart attack. But if it’s making egg-lovers smile, it’s like mainlining Prozac for the egg industry, which as you might expect is wasting no time trumpeting the news that their products have been exonerated.

But wait a minute. There’s something that’s being overlooked in all the hoopla, something that might be even more important than the milligrams of cholesterol in an egg. Do we care how the hens are treated? About the kind of conditions in which they live, and the quality of the food they are fed? Do we care if the eggs are produced humanely and sustainably? If the new dietary information means we’ll be eating more eggs that come from sick hens who live in abject misery, is this such a good thing?

As I wrote in “The Food Revolution”, the sad fact of modern industrialized egg production is that layer hens are crammed together in filthy cages so small that the birds are not able to lift a single wing. The amount of space the birds are given is less than they would have if you stuffed several of them into a file drawer. One building will frequently house 30,000 hens packed together under these grotesquely crowded and seriously unhealthy conditions.

The birds are driven so insane by these miserable conditions that they would peck each other to death if they could. The industry, of course, doesn’t want to see such a thing happen, because there’s no profit to be made from dead hens who don’t lay eggs. How, then, does the industry prevent it? Not by giving the hens more room, which would be the humane response, but by cutting off a sizable part of the hens’ beaks, a process known euphemistically as “beak trimming.”

What’s a concerned consumer to do? Fortunately, the Cornucopia Institute has come out with an “Organic Egg Scorecard” that empowers consumers with accurate information. The scorecard rates companies that sell name-brand and private-label organic eggs, according to the criteria that are most important to the majority of conscientious consumers.

There are two things the Organic Egg Scorecard quickly makes apparent.

The first is that just because eggs are “organic” doesn’t mean they are humanely raised. In fact, there are “organic” factory farm operations with more than 80,000 “organic” hens in a single building.

The second thing the Organic Egg Scorecard reveals is exactly which brands of eggs found in your local stores are produced using the best organic practices and with the most ethical regard for the hens. If you are interested in which eggs are sustainable and humane, and which are not, check it out.

The results may surprise you. For example, the private label brands sold by Trader Joe’s, Safeway O Organics, Whole Foods 365 Organic, WalMart’s Great Value and Costco’s Kirkland Signature, get the lowest possible rating. This is because these companies were unable or unwilling to provide any meaningful information about how their chickens are housed, fed or treated. Unfortunately, reports the Cornucopia Institute, “the vast majority of organic eggs for private label brands are produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access.”

Many egg suppliers tout that their eggs are produced without hormones. That sounds great but is in fact meaningless, because unlike beef and dairy products, no eggs produced in the U.S. today are legally produced with hormones. Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising poultry.

Whole Foods, at least, has taken a step in the right direction by not selling any eggs that come from hens whose beaks have been “trimmed.” Whole Foods shoppers can take a modicum of comfort in knowing that eggs bought there do not come from the worst of the nation’s egg factories.

If you want the eggs from healthy and happy hens, you might want to take a step in the direction of food self-reliance and keep a few hens in your backyard. Or get your eggs from a neighbor or from a small-scale farm you can actually visit. Or purchase only those eggs which are highly rated by the Organic Egg Scorecard.

Personally, my favorite breakfast is guaranteed to be cruelty-free. It’s oatmeal, with cinnamon, raisins and walnuts, which aren’t added only for flavor. Oats are a comparatively low-glycemic index grain to begin with, but the addition of walnuts creates a nourishing breakfast with high protein content, high nutrient density, a healthy form of fat, and a very low glycemic index.

Here’s my recipe for a tasty and hearty breakfast that will provide you with consistent blood sugar levels, and give you plenty of energy all morning. Serves three.

1 cup rolled oats
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup walnuts

1. Place oats, water, salt, cinnamon and raisins in a covered saucepan and bring to a boil.
2. Turn down heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove from heat, stir in walnuts and serve hot.

What Should We Learn from the Deaths of Fitness Icons

February 10th, 2011

The fitness icon, Jack LaLanne, died last week at the age of 96. Healthy and active until the very end, he was a powerful example of the role that exercise and nutrition can play in elevating a life. Jack lived long and vibrantly, and inspired millions of people to make positive health choices.

Jack’s death reminded me of the life and untimely death of another fitness icon of the 20th century, Jim Fixx. Jim’s books were wildly popular, and his work was credited for helping start the fitness revolution in the Western world. But while Jim shared with Jack a passion for the health-giving benefits of exercise, these men differed on a crucial point: Jim believed that exercise was key, and that diet and nutrition played a far smaller part in health.

Like Jack LaLanne, Jim Fixx was unhealthy in the early part of his life. Up until his mid-thirties, he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, loved his burgers and shakes, and weighed 220 pounds. At age 35, he stopped smoking and began running. Within a short time he was running 80 miles a week, racing marathons, and had lost all his excess weight. His belief in the healing powers of running was tremendous. In his bestselling book, The Complete Book of Running, Fixx repeatedly quoted Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., a California pathologist who was then advancing the theory that marathon runners actually develop a sort of immunity from heart disease. Fixx repeatedly quoted Bassler’s assertion that any nonsmoker fit enough to run a complete marathon in under four hours would, regardless of his or her diet, never suffer a fatal heart attack.

Jim Fixx thought that a healthy diet wasn’t that important. He believed that if you don’t smoke and if you exercise sufficiently, you are protected against heart disease.

Fixx knew that his father had died of a heart attack at age 43. But he believed that exercise (and the improved circulation it generates) would be an adequate defense. He thought that as long as he ran daily and didn’t smoke, he would stay healthy and avoid his father’s fate.

Jim didn’t just ignore expert advice that he needed to eat more healthfully. He went out of his way to forcefully criticize those who offered such advice. At the time, probably the world’s foremost advocate of eating a healthy diet as a means to open and heal clogged arteries was Nathan Pritikin. In his book titled Diet for Runners, Pritikin described a conversation he had with Jim Fixx:

Jim Fixx phoned me and criticized the chapter “Run and Die on the American Diet” in my book The Pritikin Promise. In that chapter, I said that many runners on the average American diet have died and will continue to drop dead during or shortly after long-distance events or training sessions. Jim thought the chapter was hysterical in tone and would frighten a lot of runners. I told him that was my intention. I hoped it would frighten them into changing their diets. I explained that I think it is better to be hysterical before someone dies than after. Too many men, I told Jim, had already died because they believed that anyone who could run a marathon in under four hours and who was a nonsmoker had absolute immunity from having a heart attack.

Sadly, only six months after this conversation, a passing motorcyclist discovered a man lying dead beside a road in northern Vermont. He was clad only in shorts and running shoes. The man was Jim Fixx.

Jim Fixx, the nation’s leading spokesperson for the health benefits of running, had tragically died of a massive heart attack while running alone on that country road. Only 52-years-old, he paid a terrible price for his belief that he didn’t have to pay much attention to nutrition, and for thinking that exercise alone was sufficiently protective. An autopsy revealed that three of his coronary arteries were more than 70 percent blocked, and one was 99 percent obstructed.

You may have heard the Jim Fixx story before. He became the butt of late-night jokes as overweight comedians made fun of the fact that the running guru had died of a heart attack. Sedentary people often want to believe that exercise isn’t that important. They comfort themselves by telling and retelling the Jim Fixx story, as if the moral was that there’s no harm in being a couch potato. But to do that is to miss the point entirely.

The real moral of Jim Fixx’s tragic death is that while exercise is wonderful and necessary for a healthy life, it cannot make up for poor eating habits.

Sadly, many people exercise regularly, and believe that by doing so they can make up for almost any manner of dietary transgressions. One woman I know regularly eats rich desserts immediately after exercising, on the grounds that she “has earned it.” Each time she exercises, she calculates the number of calories she has burned, and then treats herself to a piece of cheesecake of that same (or slightly higher) number of calories. And then she wonders why she isn’t losing weight.

On the other hand, I know people who are extremely fastidious about what they eat, but don’t exercise. Over time, as their bodies begin to break down, they tend to become even more picky about their food. They may spend thousands of dollars on supplements, but somehow never manage to get off their butts.

It takes both. As Jack LaLanne often said, “exercise is king, and nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”

John Robbins is the author of many bestsellers including “The Food Revolution” and “Diet For A New America,” and of the recently released “The New Good Life.” He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit here.

Jack LaLanne Dies: Who the Fitness Guru Really Was

February 10th, 2011

Jack LaLanne died on Sunday, at the age of 96. He was a mentor to me, as he was to many. He was a great man, more so than most people realize.

His wife of 51 years, Elaine LaLanne, knew. “I have not only lost my husband and a great American icon,” she said, “but the best friend and most loving partner anyone could ever hope for.”

When it comes to exercise and health, the name Jack LaLanne has long been virtually synonymous with fitness. Jack literally inspired millions to live a healthful life. But Jack LaLanne didn’t start out as a model of health. Far from it.

When he was a teenager, he dropped out of school for a year because he was so ill. Shy and withdrawn, he avoided being with people. He had pimples and boils, was thin, weak, and sickly, and wore a back brace. “I also had blinding headaches every day,” Jack recalled. “I wanted to escape my body because I could hardly stand the pain. My life appeared hopeless.”

Then he met the pioneer nutritionist Paul Bragg, who preached a new way of living, and to his credit, Jack listened. Bragg asked Jack, “What do you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?”

“Cakes, pies, and ice cream,” Jack answered truthfully.

“Jack,” Bragg replied, “you’re a walking garbage can.”

He pointed young Jack in a healthier direction. That night Jack got down on his knees by the side of his bed and prayed. He didn’t say, “God, make me the strongest man in the world.” Instead, he asked for a new beginning. “God, please give me the willpower to refrain from eating unhealthy foods when the urge comes over me. And please give me the strength to exercise even when I don’t feel like it.”

Jack set out to see what he could accomplish with a good diet and exercise. He found a set of weights and began to use them. He ate only the most healthful of foods. He developed exercise equipment that evolved into what has become standard in many health spas today. In 1936, he opened the first modern health club, paying $45 a month for rent in downtown Oakland.

Jack LaLanne touted the value of exercise and nutrition long before it became fashionable. Many people thought he was a charlatan and a nut. When he encouraged the elderly to lift weights, doctors said this was terrible advice. They said it was a good way for the elderly to break bones. But now, of course, we know that weight-bearing exercise is precisely what is needed to build bone strength and prevent elderly bones from breaking. He was among the first to advocate weight training for women. Doctors said women who tried it would not be able to bear children. Now we know that regular exercise is one of the best preparations for childbirth. Over the years, he’s been vindicated a thousandfold. His television programs have brought his ideas to hundreds of millions of people and helped change the way we all view health and fitness.

It has been said that without eccentrics, cranks and heretics the world would not progress. Jack LaLanne was most certainly an eccentric. On his 60th birthday, he swam from the notorious Alcatraz island prison to San Francisco while handcuffed, towing a thousand-pound boat. “Why did you do that?” people asked. Jack’s response: “To give the prisoners hope.” (The prison has since closed, and today Alcatraz Island is a U.S. National Park Service attraction.)

On his 65th birthday, Jack LaLanne towed 65 hundred pounds of wood pulp across a lake in Japan. On his 70th birthday, he celebrated by towing 70 rowboats with seventy people on board for a mile and a half across Long Beach Harbor, all while handcuffed and with his feet shackled.

He said his purpose in these phenomenal performances was to demonstrate that a healthful lifestyle can work wonders.

Having pioneered health and fitness gyms in the United States, Jack was gratified that physical fitness and nutrition have become a huge growth industry worldwide, because he believed that the emphasis on exercise and a healthful, natural diet creates stronger, smarter, and better people. “With healthier citizens,” he said, “we unburden society from sickness, and reduce the medical bills that are draining people’s savings and causing so much grief.”

Even in his 90s, Jack was a living testimony to the value of regular exercise and a healthful lifestyle. He was for many years a vegan (no meat, dairy, or eggs), but in his later years, though he still ate no dairy products — “anything that comes from a cow, I don’t eat” — he occasionally ate egg whites and wild fish. Mostly, he ate organic raw fruits and vegetables. And he took vitamins.

His vibrant message was that it’s never too late to get in shape. “Those who begin to exercise regularly, and replace white flour, sugar, and devitalized foods with live, organic, natural foods, begin to feel better immediately,” he said. He emphasized that it takes both nutrition and exercise. “There are so many health nuts out there who eat nothing but natural foods but they don’t exercise and they look terrible. Then there are other people who exercise like a son-of-a-gun but eat a lot of junk … Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom!”

Even at the age of 95, Jack LaLanne was still a model of fitness and vitality. Full of life and spirit, his one-minute “Jack LaLanne Tip of the Day” pieces were still being shown on seventy television stations. As energetic and flamboyant as ever, he was still speaking all over the world, inspiring people to help themselves to a better life, physically, mentally, and morally.

When he was 94, Jack was asked if he thought he’d live to be 100. His answer was to the point. “I don’t care how old I live! I just want to be living while I am living! I have friends who are in their 80s, and now they’re in wheelchairs or they’re getting Alzheimer’s. Who wants that? I want to be able to do things. I want to look good. I don’t want to be a drudge on my wife and kids. And I want to get my message out to people.” He smiled. “I tell people, I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.”

He was once asked about George Burns, the famous comedian who made it to 100 though he smoked cigars, drank alcohol and was not health-oriented. Jack, it turns out, knew George Burns well, and he answered, “George Burns was more athletic than you think he was. And he was a very social man. He loved people, he enjoyed life. He worked at living. Old George was a social lion, he got around and did things. That’s the key right there. It starts with your brain.”

Jack LaLanne was a man of great accomplishments. But perhaps his greatest achievement was that this once painfully shy and sick young man learned to love people and to love being alive.

John Robbins is the author of many bestsellers include “The Food Revolution” and “Diet For A New America.” He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit

Who’s Done More Damage, Bernard Madoff or Alan Greenspan?

January 7th, 2011

Exactly two years ago today, I received a phone call from hell. My financial adviser and close friend, with whom I had invested all of my family’s life savings, called to tell me that overnight we had lost 95 percent of our net worth. It turned out that our life savings had been invested in a fund that had been handled by Bernard Madoff. Because we weren’t direct investors, there was no hope of our ever recovering a penny.

Tragically, what happened to my family overnight is happening to many, many people today, only more slowly. It is one of the darkest nightmares of our times that so many people are losing their homes, their pensions, their jobs, their savings, and any semblance of financial security. The official unemployment rate is 9.8 percent, but if you include the underemployed (those who have part-time work but can’t find a full-time job, though they need one), and add in also the huge numbers of unemployed people who have given up looking for work because they feel the search is hopeless, the figure rises to above 22 percent. There are already 19 million vacant homes in the country, with another 10 million foreclosures in the pipeline. The average household credit card debt is nearly $16,000. And the U.S. dollar, which has been the world’s reserve currency for almost 100 years, is losing value and appears increasingly unstable.

How did we ever get into such a mess?

Last year, a Newsweek poll found Bernard Madoff to be the most despised person in history. Having been a victim of his fraud, I understand. But some people think that when it comes to wreaking financial havoc, Madoff was a piker compared to the man who was dubbed history’s greatest Federal Reserve chairman upon his retirement in 2006 — Alan Greenspan.

Why? Because Greenspan may be more responsible than any other single human being for the disastrous developments in our nation’s economy. Author Matt Taibbi doesn’t mince words on the subject. In his new book about how bubbles and bailouts have decimated the U.S. economy, he none-too-subtly calls Greenspan “the biggest asshole in the universe.”

Madoff lived high and mighty as a billionaire as long as he kept his Ponzi scheme afloat. Greenspan was revered as long as he kept the party going for the ultra-rich, as long as he kept one bubble after another inflated. But with every party, there’s always the morning after. The collapse of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme bankrupted not just tens of thousands of families, but many charitable foundations, nonprofit organizations, and hospital and school endowments. The bursting of Greenspan’s bubbles, on the other hand, decimated the entire U.S. economy, bankrupting tens of millions of families.

In his biography of Greenspan, appropriately titled Greenspan’s Bubbles, MSN Money columnist William Fleckenstein recounts the devastating series of bubbles and crashes that directly ensued from Greenspan’s policies. The Savings and Loan scandal was the first tip-off. As a paid consultant for Lincoln Savings and Loan, Greenspan was an ardent advocate of Savings and Loan deregulation. When Lincoln’s parent corporation went bankrupt in 1989, more than 21,000 mostly elderly investors lost their life savings.

This was, however, peanuts compared to what was to follow. With Greenspan as the head of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and with his policies running the show, the tech bubble was inflated only to burst in 2000, closely followed by the real estate bubble that began to burst in 2007, and the credit bubble that burst in 2008.

Greenspan’s policies contributed massively to each of these bubbles, and thus to their inevitable collapse. Like Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, they provided illusory returns, not based on any real goods, services or value provided, but rather on the attraction soaring returns have for new entrants into the game.

The costs of each of these market collapses are measured not in the billions but in the trillions of dollars, and they’ve come so quickly on the heels of one another that we may think of them as business as usual. That’s why it’s important to grasp that, prior to Greenspan’s arrival, the U.S. had been nearly bubble-free for more than 50 years. The only exception? A brief mania for gold and other precious metals in late 1979 and early 1980.

Prior to running the Federal Reserve, Greenspan headed the National Commission on Social Security Reform. The original intent behind Social Security was generous and benevolent. At the height of the Great Depression, our society resolved to create a safety net that would pay modest benefits to retirees, the disabled, and the survivors of deceased workers. It was the formalizing of the long-respected tradition of supporting elders and others who are less able to fend for themselves. The idea was to create less fear and more economic security.

But once Greenspan got involved, things immediately began to change. His policies triggered a staggering transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes into the hands of the richest members of society. It is not an exaggeration to say that the resulting concentration of money and power in the hands of the few is undermining the economy, corrupting democracy, deepening the racial wealth divide, and tearing communities and families apart.

It was primarily due to Greenspan’s proposals that the Social Security tax rate went from 9.35 percent in 1981 to 15.3 percent in 1990. Social Security taxes are borne primarily by the lower and middle economic classes. They only apply to wage income, not to investment income, so people who work for a living pay through the nose while those who invest for a living pay not at all. Fair, right?

Social Security taxes are currently capped at about $106,000. This means that a married couple who earns $106,000 a year will pay more than $16,000 in Social Security taxes. They will pay the same amount that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and his wife will pay, even though Ellison’s income over the past 10 years wasnearly $2 billion.

A couple near the bottom of the economic ladder, earning $30,000 a year between them, obviously has nothing to spare, yet they pay $4,590 in Social Security taxes. Billionaire investors and hedge-fund managers, meanwhile, may pay nothing, because they can usually structure their income so that none of it is subject to Social Security or Medicare taxes.

The policies that were implemented following the recommendations of Greenspan’s commission have produced, in the last 20 years, $1.7 trillion in new taxes borne almost entirely by the lower and middle class. There might have been some justification for this if the amount of benefits you would eventually receive was directly related to the amount of money you paid into the pool, and if the money was set aside for future Social Security recipients. Prior to Greenspan’s reforms, that’s essentially how things were done. But thanks to his innovations, this is no longer the case. The money is no longer held separate from the rest of the budget, and has been used instead for other government spending.

It was George W. Bush’s first Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill who publicly announced the bad news. “I come to you as managing director of Social Security,” he said. “Today we have no assets in the trust fund. We have the good faith and credit of the United States government that benefits will flow.”

It’s hard to avoid noticing that Social Security is increasingly taking on some of the characteristics of a legally-mandated Ponzi scheme.

Bernard Madoff was a liar and psychopath who recklessly stole tens of billions of dollars. He will spend the rest of his pathetic life in prison. Alan Greenspan, on the other hand, is still widely admired. Not that long ago, he was almost considered a candidate for Mt. Rushmore. He was certainly the most influential proponent of financial deregulation in the last century.

But a generation from now, who will history judge with more scorn?

Are So-Called ‘Eco-Terrorists’ Falsely Prosecuted?

January 7th, 2011

The Pennsylvania homeland security office is in the news this week, and receiving a heavy dose of well deserved scrutiny. It seems the office has been distributing anti-terrorism bulletins to state police and other public officials. The “terrorist activities” targeted by the bulletins have included such dire threats to public safety as anti-BP candlelight vigils, peaceful demonstrations by anti-war groups, gay and lesbian festivals, a screening of the documentary “Gasland,” and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo.

Governor Ed Rendell has apologized, but continues to support James Powers, his homeland security director. Powers, who authorized spending $125,000 of the state’s money for the information contained in the bulletins, said his office is charged with preventing damage to critical infrastructure in the state. He did not explain exactly how protests against a local rodeo amounted to threats against critical infrastructure.

What is Powers’ justification? What is he thinking? Could he be more concerned with monitoring political activities which he says “foment dissent” than with finding actual potential terrorists?

If so, he’s not alone. More than a few public officials have been labeling as “terrorists” people whose beliefs and activities threaten the status quo. If Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, would they find themselves prosecuted as terrorists?

Increasingly, corporations and politicians alike are labeling activists “eco-terrorists” and national security threats. It’s like red- baiting, with a new green twist.

Consider, for example, the case of Eric McDavid. Barely 30- years-old, he is currently serving a nearly 20-year sentence as a convicted “terrorist.”

Eric McDavid grew up in Orangevale, California, a middle class suburb northeast of Sacramento. An easy-going young man, he worked as a carpenter in order to attend Sierra College, where he studied philosophy and conflict resolution. He opposed the Iraq war, and as an expression of his commitment to be kind to animals, became a vegan.

His parents, who both stem from Midwestern farming families, raised Eric to respect the earth. They were bewildered when FBI agents showed up at the family home looking for their son. Eric, they told the agents, was not a troublemaker. Far from it, he was an affable peacemaker. When his younger sisters would fight, he would mediate.

When spiders were found in the house, he would take them, by hand, back to the garden. But Eric was in trouble. He had fallen in love with a young woman who said her name was Anna. He didn’t know she was lying about her name, nor that she was only pretending to be an environmental activist. He didn’t know that she was being paid by the FBI to be an informant.

Believing Anna was his soul mate and desperate for her affection, Eric followed her lead. When he talked about his grief and anger at the deterioration of the environment, Anna challenged him to act on his convictions. At the behest of the FBI, Anna presented Eric and his friends with bomb-making recipes. Funded by the FBI, she financed their transportation, food and housing.

At one point Erik sent her an email pouring out his feelings for her. In an interview with Elle magazine, Anna later described how the FBI responded when she showed the email to her handlers at the agency. “They said if he makes another advance, what you need to say to him in order to calm him, to mollify him, is that we need to put the mission first. There’s time for romance later.” As Anna continued to string Eric along, she encouraged him and the others to develop a plan and stick to it. According to the Sacramento News & Review, “Documents from the investigation show that whenever the group started to lose focus, or to have second thoughts, Anna badgered them about being all talk.”

Trying to impress her, Eric went along. He did not know that her actions were, in the words of Will Potter, a leading authority on civil liberties post 9/11, “part of a deliberate, calculated and coordinated effort to infiltrate activist groups and land ‘terrorism’ convictions, even if it means breaking the rules and provoking criminal activity.”

Anna spent a year and a half working with the FBI to entrap a man who had fallen in love with her. Finally, Eric and two others were arrested and charged with a single count of “conspiracy to damage and destroy property by fire and an explosive.” Though no actual fire had ever been started, no explosive detonated, and no property damaged or destroyed, Eric was treated as a malevolent and dangerous terrorist. He was denied bail, despite having no prior criminal record and no history of violence. He spent almost two years pre-trial in solitary confinement.

How seriously the government took the case can be seen by who they brought in as lead prosecutor. R. Steven Lapham was no stranger to high profile terrorism cases. He had previously prosecuted the Unabomber, Ted Kacynski, and also members of a militia group who had conspired to blow up two large propane tanks in Elk Grove, California, in order to start the second American Revolution.

McDavid’s attorney, Mark Reichel, defended his client by saying that he was a victim of entrapment. “There has never been a case in America,” said Reichel, “that has involved this much entrapment, this much pushing by an informant… and by the FBI behind it.”

But the jury was given false information about “Anna” and her role in the events that had taken place. After the trial, one of the jurors, Diane Bennett, issued a formal declaration to the court, complaining that she and the other jurors had been gravely misled:

“During deliberations, we asked the court to please clarify for the jury the issue of whether Anna was a government agent, and if so, when did she become one… The written answer was from the court and stated ‘no’ that she was not a government agent… Once the written response advised Anna was not a government agent, we then changed to a guilty verdict.”

Eric McDavid was found guilty in September, 2007, and sentenced to 19 years and 7 months in prison, far longer than the average sentence given to violent child molesters and many murderers. The U.S. Attorney’s office promptly issued a press release proudly trumpeting “Eco-Terrorist Given Nearly Twenty Years In Prison.” The statement made no mention of the fact that an informant and provocateur had been involved. It mentioned, only briefly and in passing, a “confidential source.”

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has prosecuted more than 20 “terrorism” cases involving environmental activists. In so doing, the government has redefined environmentally motivated property destruction, such as torching Hummers or destroying tree-felling equipment, as being tantamount to the murderous assaults of Al Qaeda.

Some of us may think the nation should turn its terror focus to Al Qaeda and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Others, including experts at the Pentagon, are worried about the colossal national security threat posed by climate change. But apparently there are federal officials who for whatever reason consider the threat posed by “eco-terrorists” to be priority number one. This, even though no act of environmental protest, even those where property has been intentionally damaged, has ever resulted in a single human death.

Just how bad is McDonald’s food?

October 28th, 2010

Morgan Spurlock sought to find out in his 2004 documentary Super Size Me. In his film, I was interviewed and spoke about the role McDonald’s food is playing in our epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

For 30 days, Spurlock ate only McDonald’s food. All of us involved in the film, including Spurlock’s doctors, were shocked at the amount that his health deteriorated in such a short time. Before the 30 days started, we each predicted what changes we expected to see in his weight, cholesterol levels, liver enzymes and other biomarkers, but every one of us substantially underestimated how severely his health would be jeopardized. It turned out that in the 30 days, the then 32-year-old man gained 25 pounds, his cholesterol levels rose dangerously as did fatty accumulations in his liver, and he experienced mood swings, depression, heart palpitations and sexual dysfunction.

Some have said Spurlock was an idiot for eating that way, and it’s true that he did himself some major damage in those 30 days. But I’ve always felt the suffering he took upon himself by eating all his meals for that month at McDonald’s was admirable, because it served to warn millions of the all too real health dangers of eating too much fast food.

Super Size Me struck a chord for a lot of people, as it became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. And more importantly, it changed the eating habits of millions.

Now a group of physicians and other health professionals have produced a short (39 second) ad that may be one of the more controversial in advertising history. The Washington, DC-based group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)’s new “Consequences” ad takes dead aim at McDonald’s high-fat menu. The provocative ad has become a story unto itself, because it has in only a few days generated nearly one million views on YouTube, and has been covered by newspapers and broadcast media around the world, including the Wall Street Journal, U.K.’s The Guardian, CNN, the New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets.

What do you think? Is the ad a contribution to public health, or does it go too far? Even if the underlying critique of the dangers of hamburgers and other fast food is valid, does the ad accomplish its purpose, or is it too emotionally manipulative?

The ad ends by telling us to “make it vegetarian,” making it obvious that PCRM has a pro-vegetarian orientation. But with good reason. The evidence is consistent and compelling that vegetarians suffer less from the diseases associated with the typical Western diet. Vegetarians have repeatedly been shown to have lower rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation and gall stones. They also have lower rates of many kinds of cancer, including colon cancer and the hormone dependent cancers such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian cancer.

Do you have to be a strict vegetarian to enjoy the considerable health benefits of a vegetarian diet? No, you do not. What’s important is to eat a plant-strong diet, with a high percentage of your calories coming from whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and a low percentage coming from processed foods, sugars, unhealthy fats and animal products.

The standard American diet — in which 62 percent of calories come from processed foods, 25 percent from animal products and only 5 percent from fruits and vegetables — is nothing less than a health travesty. Our fast-food culture has produced a population with widespread chronic illness and is a primary reason that health care costs are taking a devastating toll on just about everyone.

The annual health insurance premiums paid by the average American family now exceed the gross yearly income of a full-time minimum wage worker. Every 30 seconds, someone in the U.S. files for bankruptcy due to the costs of treating a health problem. Starbucks spends more on the health insurance of its workers than it does on coffee.

Medical care costs in the U.S. have not always been this excessive. This year, we will spend more than $2.5 trillion on medical care. But in 1950, five years before Ray Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald’s restaurant, Americans only spent $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars). Even after adjusting for inflation, we now spend as much on health care every 10 days as we did in the entire year of 1950.

Has this enormous increase in spending made us healthier? Earlier this year, when the World Health Organization assessed the overall health outcomes of different nations, it placed 36 other nations ahead of the United States.

Today, we have an epidemic of largely preventable diseases. To these illnesses, Americans are losing not only their health but also their life savings. Meanwhile, the evidence keeps growing that the path to improved health lies in eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, and eating far less processed foods, sugars and animal products.

It’s striking to me that in all the heated debates we have had about health care reform, one basic fact has rarely been discussed, and that is the one thing that could dramatically bring down the costs of health care while improving the health of our people. Studies have shown that 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable, and the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet. If Americans were to stop overeating, to stop eating unhealthy foods and to instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties, we could have a more affordable, sustainable and effective health care system.

Is it McDonald’s fault that more than 63 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, making us the fattest nation in the history of the world? I don’t think so, because each of us is responsible for what we put in our mouths and in the mouths of our children. Plus many other fast food chains serve food that is just as harmful. But the company is playing a significant role in generating our national appetite for unhealthy foods. McDonald’s is by far the largest food advertiser in the country, spending more than one billion dollars a year on direct media advertising.

Much of McDonald’s advertising is aimed at children, and it’s been effective. Every month, approximately nine out of 10 American children eat at a McDonald’s restaurant. Most U.S. children can recognize McDonald’s before they can speak. Tragically, one in every three children born this year in the U.S. will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

Of course, fast food is not the only cause of the tragic rise of obesity and diabetes in our society. Our culture has become pathologically sedentary. Watching television and sitting in front of computer monitors for hour upon hour doesn’t help. But the high sugar and high fat foods sold by McDonald’s and the other fast food restaurants is certainly a major part of the problem. You would have to walk for seven hours without stopping to burn off the calories from a Big Mac, a Coke and an order of fries.

Can Unforgivable Violence Ever Be Forgiven?

October 2nd, 2010

It was exactly four years ago today that one of the most brutal, senseless, and unforgivable acts of violence in U.S. history took place. And that day also brought one of the most extraordinary responses to unspeakable violence our culture has ever known.

The schoolchildren had just returned to their classroom from recess on the morning of October 2, 2006, when a 32-year-old milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts backed his pickup truck up to the front of an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We may never be able to understand what possessed Roberts that day, but we do know, to our horror, what he did.

He walked into the classroom holding a 9mm handgun. He then ordered the male students to carry items from the back of his pickup truck into the classroom. These items included a shotgun, a stungun, wires, chains, nails, tools, and a bag which included sexual lubricant and flexible plastic ties. There was also a wood board with many sets of metal eyehooks intended to be used for securing his victims.

Roberts ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard. He then released the male students, a pregnant woman, and three parents with infants. One female student managed to escape, leaving behind 10 hostages, all of them girls.

The teacher, who had somehow also managed to escape in the confusion, immediately raced to a nearby farm and called 911. Within a few minutes, police and emergency medical personnel began to arrive. As they did, Roberts was using plastic ties to bind the arms and legs of the schoolgirls he held hostage. A group of state troopers approached the schoolhouse, but Roberts threatened to shoot the girls if they did not leave immediately. The police backed off.

A police negotiator, using the bullhorn on his cruiser, spoke to Roberts, asking him repeatedly to put down his weapons and come out of the school house. He refused.

Barely more than 30 minutes had elapsed since Charles Carl Roberts had first driven up to the schoolhouse when the shooting began. He shot all 10 of the schoolgirls execution style, in the back of the head. When the shots rang out, the police immediately rushed the building, but the shooting stopped just as they broke through the windows and began to force their way inside. Roberts had killed himself.

Three girls died at the scene, and two others died in the next sixteen hours. Five others were left in critical condition, struggling for their lives. The victims ranged in age from six to 13.

Janice Ballenger, deputy coroner in Lancaster County, told the Washington Post that she counted two dozen bullet wounds in one child alone. “There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass,” she said. “There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”

There is probably no way most of us could comprehend the grief and horror that this unspeakable brutality caused the Amish community and the families of these innocent victims. There are no words that can even begin to express the violence and its devastating toll.

But somehow, these people did not respond with hate. They did not cry out for revenge. Their hearts were filled with unimaginable grief, but they sought and found ways, miraculously, to turn their misery toward compassion.

Impossibly, the Amish actually reached out to the family of the gunman. The afternoon of the shooting, the Amish grandfather of one of the girls who had been murdered publicly expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day, Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms for nearly an hour, comforting him.

The Amish didn’t hold a press conference. They didn’t cast blame or prepare to file lawsuits. Instead, though their hearts were filled with grief and shock, they reached out with compassion to the killers’ family.

Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls. Amish mourners were the majority of those gathered at the funeral of Charles Carl Roberts. And the Amish later set up a charitable fund for the family of the killer.

The story became the subject of national attention. Many reporters asked, “How could these people forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent children?”

It’s a good question. Part of the answer stems from how deeply devoted the Amish are to the teachings of Jesus, who taught his followers to forgive others, to place the needs of others before themselves, and to find peace in the reality that God can bring good out of any situation.

This is who the Amish are. This what they do. They try to meet evil with good. When they are harmed, they seek to forgive. They do their best to embody Martin Luther King’s recognition that “forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”

The Amish are a people of few material possessions. I’ve heard it said, by someone obviously not drawn to these people, that they have made self-denial into a lifestyle. But could they have an inner power that is beyond the comprehension of those of us caught up in the rat race of the modern world?

Which brings up another question. We live in a world where forgiveness is often seen as a sign of weakness, a world where revenge and retaliation are taken for granted as an appropriate response to evil. Could the Amish be showing us another possibility?

The Amish may be the Michael Jordans of forgiveness. Their capacity to forgive may seem superhuman to the rest of us. But is it possible that Amish forgiveness and grace have something to teach us?

I think it’s something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood, and Gandhi, too. They taught that the most effective way to counter violence was not to condone it, nor to react in kind, but to respond to it with creative nonviolence. They knew that an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. They taught that you can hate the sin, but you must try to love the sinner.

Becoming merciful rather than hateful is difficult work, and can seem all but impossible for those who have been taught to nurse fantasies of revenge against those who have harmed us. We do not live in a culture where forgiveness is given much value. We identify justice with payback. We have highly developed capacities for blame.

But might there be something in the Amish example that can be an antidote to the brutality and meanness of the world? If we are moved by their example, could it be because they remind us of our own capacities for mercy?

I don’t want to sound too high and mighty here. I can get as angry as the next person, and I think that a capacity for healthy and constructive anger is a necessary part of our emotional wholeness. Sometimes injustice needs to be corrected, and there are people in the world from whom we, and our children, need protection. And yet, there is something in the Amish example that strikes me with its beauty.

Maybe the Amish can remind us of this: Yes, there is unimaginable anguish and violence in the world. But when all is said and done, love might still have a strength that hate can never defeat.