Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Interview with John Robbins (Part 2)

Bringing Family Together

I: You mentioned the social aspects of food and I think it's very interesting in families, in modern culture we often do not have time to sit down to have a meal together the way we used to. So could you speak a little bit about your lifestyle choices particularly in terms of bringing together family? I know you live with three generations.

J: We do! I live with my wife of forty years and our adult son, his wife and their six-year old twins, our grand-twins. We live with three generations in one house and we get along very well. We love each other, our values are deeply compatible. I don't think this is for everybody, but it works very well in our case. We prepare most of our food. We don't eat out very much. I suppose I would if restaurants were more compatible to the food choices I want to make. We eat a very simple and healthy diet. It's totally vegetarian and we do that for the reasons I've been talking about and also because it brings us together.

In sharing food, we share time and space, we get to know each other, we're not passing by each other, we're actually engaging, connecting, and learning about one another. Therefore, we're learning about our love for each other, how we can make a difference in each other's lives and how we can support each other, how we can understand each other more fully. This is the kind of relationship building that in modern society often gets lost in the shuffle when people are so driven, they're so time-stressed, and they're so anxious frankly that they don't really connect with one another. I think we need to connect with each other and food is a wonderful medium for that. So rather than go out and eat fast food which isn't healthy for the environment, isn't healthy for us, is full of bad fats and animal ingredients that I don't want to touch, we prepare our food at home. We grow a lot of our own food in our garden; we shop at local farmer's markets, where local growers bring their produce; and we are also fortunate enough to have some natural food stores in the area which we also shop at. And we're making distinctions about what we do and don't want to put into our bodies, what we do and don't want to support in the world, in who, we in fact are, the kind of characters we're going to express by our lifestyle.

Plant-Based Foods, an Excellent Source of Protein

I: So I want to ask you about food additives and particularly in animal production; there are a lot of hormones and other additives. We practice vegetarianism but we also don't eat eggs. There used to be a feeling that it is one of the most perfect proteins. Could you speak a little about eggs and the vegan lifestyle?

J: Well, I don't eat eggs either. The idea that eggs are the perfect protein stems from rat experiments. They found that rats, baby rats, prospered when they were fed eggs, so they sort of made the assumption from that. This is originally the research. A lot has been done since, but that's how it first got started. Well it turns out that baby rats' needs are so different than a human baby's needs. Rat mother's milk is about 45% protein, a human mothers' milk is about 8% protein. So it's not a really comparable food. I look at the constituency of human breast milk as nature's answer to the question, "What is the ideal food for a human baby?" I don't look at what makes a rat grow the fastest, I look at what will help a human being thrive, and that's obviously human breast milk for a human infant.

What we've learned since in medical science is that the need for animal protein was vastly exaggerated, because many of the studies were done and funded by animal product industries - the National Dairy Council, the Egg Board, the Meat Board, the National Cattlemen's Association, a whole slew of industry groups that profit from people thinking they need to eat their products to get adequate protein.

Plant-based proteins are more than adequate, they are excellent. And they don't come along with the saturated fat, cholesterol and these other things that the animal proteins come with that do us such damage. If you want to have a lean, fit, thriving body that operates on all cylinders, gives you the most mental clarity, the most emotional serenity, gives you the most physical strength and strongest immune system, eat a plant-based diet.

You don't need eggs for protein; you don't need meat for protein. I cannot tell you how many times people have said to me, "You're a vegetarian? Where do you get your protein?" Well I get it from plants, I get it from beans, I get it from seeds and nuts, I get it from whole grains, I get it from vegetables, because I don't fill my diet with a bunch of junk food, and I don't fill my diet with a bunch of sugar, white flour and things like that. I make every calorie count. I don't have a lot of wasted empty calories in the diet that I consume. Therefore the protein percentage doesn't have to be so high.

If the calories you're eating, most of them, are junk and empty, then the few remaining ones that have any nutrition better be solid protein in order for you to get enough. But if all your foods are good, then protein comes from all the foods that you eat. You don't have to say, "There's where I get my protein." I'm getting it from all of the foods that I eat. There is good protein in whole grains, fresh vegetables and certainly in beans and in soy products.

I: So vegetarian and especially a vegan diet is a way to become, as in the title of your new book, "Healthy at 100."

J: Well yes, I've looked at cultures where people have thrived for the longest times, where they're not just champions of longevity and that they live long but they live long, healthy lives. And their elder hoods are filled with fitness, mental clarity, contribution, joy and beauty; and they almost always eat plant-based diets or very close to this.

Making the World a Better Place for All Life

I: Yeah, that's interesting. I also wanted to congratulate you on the "Shining World Leadership Award" for humanitarianism from Supreme Master Ching Hai. She was very excited and impressed with the nobility you demonstrated in walking away from what could've been a very wealthy lifestyle, in the name of your values and your choices.

J: Well I did it in the name of all of our aspirations for a humane and sustainable world. It wasn't just for me. It really was for the planet, for all of us who are striving and inspiring towards creating a spiritually fulfilling, socially just and environmentally sustainable human presence on this planet.

I: Thank you so much for your work because I've read that for a couple of years after "A Diet for a New America" came out, beef sales in the US dropped almost 20% and there's been Howard Lyman and a number of other activists that have brought out the terrors of what has gone on in the beef industry. So I think it's interesting to see the ripple effect 20 years later.

J: And I mean you can translate that 20 % reduction of beef consumption into how many fewer heart attacks occurred, how many fewer cases of cancer occurred, how much less diabetes there was. Not that these epidemics aren't still major issues, but they have been to a degree ameliorated by that reduction. You can also translate it into how many square miles of tropical rainforests are still standing that would otherwise would have been destroyed? How many species are still with us that would otherwise have been extinguished? How much less water pollution we have to deal with, how much less greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere as a result of that reduction? We're still trashing the environment, but this was a big step; and I will feel fulfilled only when it is a step that many other people take, and we continue on that path, because the day that slaughter houses are a memory, the day that world hunger is a memory, the day that environmental destruction is a memory, will be the day that I rejoice.

I: I agree with you. The members in our Association all over the world have been doing a campaign on Alternative Living, trying to bring the word to people to associate compassion with our diet choices.

J: People today are very removed from animals and if they have images, they are of family farms and animals running around on the farm. Modern meat production has become something totally institutionalized and utterly dominated by the profit motive and a true violation of the human heart's need to live in integrity with the well-being of other forms of life.

I: So one last question to you on that note is in terms of your own spiritual motivation in life. We all meditate in our Association but a lot of people have different forms of practice. What is your secret to success in spiritual harmony?

Be Tuned into the Higher Wisdom of Life

J: Well, I meditate also. I do everything I can to quiet my mind, open my heart, and to be fully present and tuned to the higher wisdom of life and to the instinct for goodness and wellness in everyone. I want to respond to it, I want to welcome it, I want to honor it. I think that there is some good in everybody and if I can look for that, then I can be a place in which their own spirit, their own joy, their own sense of contribution and gifts can come forward. Then I am happy.

I: John you walked away from a very large empire, the Baskin Robins kingdom. For the viewers that may not know Baskin Robins, it is the largest ice-cream chain in the world, more than 5,000 stores worldwide, promoting 31 flavors of ice-cream. Your father and uncle began this business and you were not a fan of ice-cream.

J: Well I was. I grew up as a child being groomed to succeed my father. I'm an only son and I don't have brothers so it was expected that I would one day follow in his footsteps. He owned and ran the world's largest ice-cream company, a multibillion dollar company. He owned it along with my uncle. My uncle died of a heart attack in his early 50's. A very large man, he ate a lot of ice-cream as we all did. When he died, I asked my dad if there could be any connection between my uncle's fatal heart attack and the amount of ice-cream that he would eat. My dad froze, looked at me, and said: "His ticker just got tired and stopped working." I saw the denial in my dad's face and I realized why he would need to block that, because he had by this time manufactured and sold more ice-cream than any other human being that's ever lived on this planet. He did not want to think that, that product was hurting anybody, much less that it might have played a role in his beloved brother-in-law and partner's death.

But the reality is that the more ice-cream you eat, the more likely you are to have a heart attack, also the more likely you are to get diabetes; and my father developed very serious diabetes. And it's not just Baskin Robins. In the United States another very large ice-cream chain is "Ben and Jerry's." Ben Cohen was the co-founder and co-owner for years and he had a quintuple bypass procedure at the age of 49. That's how ill his cardiovascular system had become, that's the level of cardiac distress he was in; and he also is a heavy set fellow who ate a lot of ice-cream.

I am not saying an ice-cream cone is going to kill anybody. But I did not want to be selling a product that the more you ate of it, the more you consumed of it, the wealthier I would be and the sicker you would be. I didn't want that on my conscience. I wanted instead to shape my life such that I could be a vehicle for a more healing and a more compassionate world. Although I was offered the opportunity to be as extraordinarily wealthy as my father is, I walked away from that entirely and I told him, "I don't want a trust fund, I don't want an inheritance, I don't want to live off of your fortune, because I want to seek my own values and I want to live completely congruent with that. I want to find my own powers and my own path in life and I want to follow the inner, the divine call that I feel. I don't know where it will lead."

I was a young man. I couldn't say to him, "Oh, I'm going to write books that are going to be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes and become best sellers. Who knew that would ever occur. I only knew that I had a commitment within myself, a conviction, and that I had to be part of making the world a better place for all of life; and selling ice-cream just didn't fit with that. So I walked away from it and I made a choice for integrity. It was not a choice my parents felt real happy about. There was an alienation as a result of it, although a lot of that's been healed in subsequent years. The reality is that although I don't have anything like the financial wealth that I would have had, you know if I had stayed with Baskin Robbins, I have an inner wealth, that comes from knowing that my life is in alignment with my heart, and I think that's priceless.

I: Thank you so much for your work.

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