Author John Robbins discusses aging and remaining healthy. His book, Healthy At 100, is now available in paperback.
With the publication of several notable books — Healthy at 100, Diet for a New America, Reclaiming Our Health, and The Food Revolution — you are an authority on living a longer and healthier life. You also come from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream family. How has your family responded to your work and to your life choices?
Starting from scratch, my father (Irv Robbins) and my uncle (Burt Baskin) were extraordinarily successful. The company they founded and ran, Baskin-Robbins (31 Flavors), became the world’s largest ice cream company, with many thousands of stores worldwide and annual sales measured in the billions of dollars. We had an ice-cream-cone shaped swimming pool in our backyard, my pets were named after ice cream ﬂavors, and I must have eaten hundreds of gallons of ice cream.
When people nowadays hear that I no longer eat ice cream, they sometimes feel sorry for me. “Please don’t,” I tell them. “I ate enough ice cream during my childhood for twenty lifetimes.” Sometimes I ate ice cream for breakfast.
It was my father’s dream that I would someday join him in running the business, and from my earliest childhood he set about grooming me to follow in his footsteps. But when my uncle, Burt Baskin, was only 54 years old he died of a heart attack. A large man, he had always enjoyed the family product. I asked my dad if he thought the amount of ice cream my uncle ate might have contributed to his fatal heart attack. “No,” my father said. “His ticker just got tired and stopped working.”
I understand why my father would not have wanted to consider the possibility that ice cream might have been involved. By this point he had manufactured and sold more ice cream than any human being who had ever lived on this planet. He didn’t want to think that ice cream was harming anyone, much less that it might have contributed to the death of his beloved brother-in-law and partner. Besides, not much was commonly known then, in the late 1960s, about the connection between ice cream and disease.
But I saw the connection, as I did when my dad developed diabetes and high blood pressure, and again years later when Ben Cohen, co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, needed a quintuple bypass procedure at the age of forty-nine.
A single ice cream cone, of course, isn’t going to harm anyone. But even though it tastes delicious, ice cream is very high in sugar and saturated fat. The medical data is overwhelmingly clear that the more sugar and saturated fat you eat, the more likely you are to experience heart disease and diabetes and to become obese.
My father had achieved the American dream, in the material sense. But I was called forth by a different longing. Having enough money so that you can meet your basic needs is necessary and important, but there are other things that also matter a great deal. I wanted to see if I could be part of making the world a healthier place. I wanted my steps to be guided by a reverence for life.
Along with many Americans in the 1960s, I was part of the civil rights movement. I marched and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I loved and admired him immensely. When this apostle of peace and love was murdered, I felt as though a bullet had gone through my heart, too.
Along with Dr. King and many other Americans, I abhorred the violence and insanity of the war in Vietnam. Only a few months after Dr. King was killed, another man whom many of us viewed as a bringer of hope, Robert F. Kennedy, was also assassinated. These were very dark times, and I was ﬁlled with despair. In a world that seemed increasingly adrift in violence, cynicism, hopelessness, and fear, I wanted desperately to ﬁnd a path to sanity and love. I wanted to be part of a fundamental global transformation, and although I didn’t know exactly how to go about a task so huge and idealistic, I did know that, for me, making and selling ice cream was not part of it.
I did not ﬁnd it easy, however, to explain my thoughts and feelings to my father, a conservative businessman who was proud of the many things his great wealth enabled him to buy, and who never to my knowledge went a day without reading The Wall Street Journal. He had come of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while I was becoming an adult in the 1960s. Our lives were shaped by very different times. “It’s a different world now than when you grew up,” I told him. “The environment is deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities. Every two seconds a child somewhere dies of hunger while elsewhere there are abundant resources going to waste. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. We live now under a nuclear shadow, and at any moment the unspeakable could happen. Can you see that inventing a thirty-second ﬂavor would not be an adequate response for my life?”
This was very difficult for my father. Having worked hard his whole life, he had attained an extraordinary level of ﬁnancial success, and he very much wanted to share his achievements with his only son. He thought I was being hopelessly idealistic, and he warned me sternly that idealists end up poor and miserable. But I did not feel drawn to the life he wanted me to follow. Whether it was hopelessly idealistic or not, I wanted to be part of the effort to bring about a more compassionate and healthy world. I felt called to take a stand for a thriving, just, and sustainable way of life for all.
Under the circumstances, I decided that the most courageous and life-affirming thing to do was to walk away from the family business and to leave behind all connection to my family’s fortune. This felt like the most honest and liberating choice I could make. It was a choice for my integrity.
It was not a choice, however, that my father could then understand. Sadly, it was a source of distance in our relationship. He did not appreciate the path I was taking, and could not grasp why I would refuse the golden opportunity he was offering me.
I hated disappointing him, but I had to be true to myself. In 1969, my wife, Deo, and I moved to a remote part of a little island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, where we built a one-room log cabin in which we lived for the next ten years. We grew most of our own food, and our gardens were totally organic. The money we needed came from the yoga and meditation classes I taught. We were ﬁnancially poor, in many years spending less than a thousand dollars, but we didn’t need a lot. We were profoundly in love. Our time was our own. And we were learning a lot about growing food, about healing, and about ourselves.
In 1973, four years into our time on the island, our son, Ocean, was born, at home and into my hands. As he grew up we continued to spend very little money, so that we could have time for each other and the other things that mattered to us. We understood what Thoreau meant by “I make myself rich by making my wants few.” We celebrated simplicity.
As Ocean grew up I naturally had expectations for him, but more important to me than whether he lived up to them was that he be able to listen to himself well enough to know when my expectations were in alignment with his destiny and when they were not. The last thing I wanted to do was to tyrannize him with my own fears and unfulfilled wishes. What mattered was not whether he disappointed me, but that he not betray his own soul.
Eventually we moved back to California, and several of my books about healing ourselves and healing our world became bestsellers giving us some measure of ﬁnancial security. The press took to calling me things like “the rebel without a cone” and “the prophet of nonprofit.”
Meanwhile, my father, on account of his diabetes and high blood pressure, was beginning to make major changes in his diet. Gradually he gave up eating ice cream or any other form of sugar, and he greatly decreased his intake of meat. As a result, his health improved dramatically. He liked reminding me that he was “not a card-carrying vegetarian,” but he was beginning to have far more respect for the lifestyle choices I had made and the work I was doing.
A year or so after my grand-twins were born, my parents, now in their mid-eighties, came to visit us and stayed for a few days. They saw our three-generation household living together in ways that they were not accustomed to. They watched as we all shared in the joys and challenges of caring for the babies, and saw how we sought to respond to the little ones’ special needs with patience and kindness.
The babies, who had been born extremely prematurely, had spent nearly the ﬁrst two months of their lives in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, and they had come home from the hospital fragile and terrified of life. Babies born that early are often exceedingly touch-averse. We had been warned by doctors that they might never respond normally to human contact. Our response was to hold the little ones in continuous skin-to-skin contact with us virtually twenty-four hours a day, even allowing them to sleep on our bodies at night. My parents — who were products of a time when beliefs prevailed like “Spare the rod and you’ll spoil the child” and “Don’t pick up babies or you’ll spoil them” — saw how we provided the babies with endless opportunities for physical connection. And they observed the results — the twins were growing into joyful, curious little guys who loved being cuddled.
I expected it to be difficult for my parents to see the very different way we were raising these little ones, and also for them to see how in our home the men as well as the women changed diapers, cleaned house, and made the meals. Perhaps because they were nearing the end of their lives, they seemed more accepting of our differences than I had experienced them before. I didn’t realize, though, how deep the acceptance went.
At one point, my father took me aside.
“When you left Baskin-Robbins,” he reminisced, “I thought you were crazy.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I remember.”
“Well,” he said, speaking more slowly now and turning to face me, “I see that time has proved you were right to follow your own star.” Hearing him speak this way, I felt, perhaps for the first time, his blessing on my life.