The Shangri-La of Health Food

Jacqueline Moen

In 1933, James Hilton, a British novelist who read about travels in Yunnan Province in National Geographic magazine, wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which describes a mythical kingdom set far, far away from the rest of time: Shangri-La. Three years later, Frank Capra turned Hilton’s paperback best-seller into a film. The place entered our lexicon as an earthly retreat from the worries of modern civilization.

The fictional Shangri-La appears to be an amalgam of Yunnan Province and Tibet. But the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan became, in the American mind, the closest thing to the real-life incarnations of the people of Shangri-La. The Hunzakut people reportedly lived to be 100 and had a practically illness-free existence in an inaccessible mountain valley. Paeans to healthy Hunza proliferated. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist reported that Hunza men could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. In 1960, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial extolling the virtues of the Hunza diet as a harbinger of hope for human longevity and modern medicine.

“Hunzaphilia” is one of the many compelling (if a bit chronologically disordered) stories in historian Harvey Levenstein’s new book Fear of Food. The natural, edible fountain of eternal Himalayan youth fit into a long line of claims about exceptional longevity—except that, at least among the Hunzakut, it contradicted the truth. One Japanese doctor, Levenstein writes, reported “rampant signs of poor health and malnutrition—goiter, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis—as well as what seemed to be horrific levels of infant and child mortality, which are also signs of poor nutrition.”

Nonetheless, the idea that these healthy people cut off from the rest of the world could live practically forever would persist, Levenstein writes, thanks in part to an ex-I.R.S. employee named Jerome Irving Rodale. Like Hilton, he had never traveled to the Hunza Valley, but Rodale was well-versed in the robust genre of books touting the Hunza—including both Robert McCarrison’s 1921 Studies in Deficiency Disease and G.T. Wrench’s 1938 The Wheel of Health, one of the basic texts of the health food movement.

Rodale’s book The Healthy Hunzas attributed their longevity to whole grains, dried apricots and almonds, as well as breastfeeding, relatively low alcohol use and plenty of exercise. “They are a group of 20,000 people, none of whom dies of cancer or drops dead with heart disease. In fact, heart trouble is completely unknown in that country! Feeble-mindedness and mental debilitations which are dangerously rampant in the United States are likewise alien to the vigorous Hunzas.”

Later, Rodale founded Prevention magazine, and Levenstein writes, “It regularly used the Hunza as examples of how eating natural foods could ward off the illnesses caused by the over-civilized diet.” By avoiding modern science and with it the ills of modern society—all on the basis of what it was not—Rodale’s exaltation of a more “primitive” people paved the way for the Paleolithic Diet, the Primitive Diet and the modern natural foods movement as a whole.

Yet Hunza health and longevity remains apocryphal, and Rodale himself left us with one of the movement’s more dramatic cautionary notes. One week after telling Wade Greene, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, “I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” Rodale went on the Dick Cavett show, served some asparagus boiled in urine, and then died on Cavett’s couch. He was 72.

Image: Wind-powered apricot cracker via Nigel Allan/Geographic Review, 1990.

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