Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

You Are What You (Don’t) Eat

The personal diet has become not only a cult; it has become a political statement.

James McWilliams

Geo Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

In the summer of 2016, James and Becca Reed, a lower-income couple living in Austin, Texas, decided it was time to save their lives. The Reeds, married more than twenty-five years, had become morbidly obese, diabetic, and depressed. They were taking a combined thirty-two medications. Only in their early fifties, they had arrived at this condition via a well-trod path: They ate their way into it. They did no more than consume what the American food industry not only offers in abundance—salt, starch, and sweetness—but also encourages us to eat.

As nearly 40 percent of the adult US population can attest, it doesn’t take a lot of time, effort, or expense for the consequences of the American way of eating to add up.11xCraig M. Hales, Margaret D. Carroll, Cheryl D. Fryar, and Cynthia L. Ogden, Prevalence of Obesity among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2017), 1. Retrieved from A steady diet of processed and fast food, oversized restaurant meals, and “favorited” takeout options can quickly make the average American a victim of the growing obesity epidemic. Considering that the Reeds live paycheck to paycheck, and given what we know about the strong link between economic disadvantage and poor eating choices, I was especially intrigued when a friend, who knew James and Becca from church, told me about this really interesting couple getting ready to reclaim their health in a dramatic way.

With disarming generosity, the Reeds opened their lives to me as they undertook their mission. For three months I followed and documented their progress, meeting with them several times a week, usually at the small gym they attended (on the gym owner’s dime) to talk as they exercised. What they did was both miraculous and subversive. The miraculous part is in the numbers. Becca’s blood sugar level dropped from an alarming 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) to a very normal 80 mg/dL; James’s cholesterol went from well over a borderline 200 mg/dL to a safe 153; both were losing 15 to 20 pounds a month. They reversed their diabetes—Becca’s score on the glycated hemoglobin test (6.5 or higher indicates the presence of diabetes) plummeted from 9.75 to 5.8—and stopped taking most of their medications. With remarkable efficiency, the Reeds did as planned. They saved their lives.

But as physically conspicuous as their transformation was (soon their clothes were hanging off their bodies), the ultimate driving force behind the Reeds’ success was subversive: They escaped a food system that had been eroding their health. On the surface, the Reeds did what healthy Americans habitually do—they walked more, went to the neighborhood pool after work, cut back on screen time, and hit the gym a few times a week. But these measures, at least when it came to emotionally sustaining their journey, struck them as too anodyne, too lacking in the sort of meaning they wanted to experience through their efforts. As they often remarked, it would have been easy to cheat on their routines unless there had been a moral dimension to their crusade. Healthful activities might have been central to their transformation, but they did not provide what the Reeds needed most: a community bound by a set of stipulations that mattered—in effect, a creed.

So when it came to confronting the food system in which the Reeds had long been entrapped, they decided it was not enough to behave like most relatively healthy Americans. Instead, they needed to adopt an entirely new identity and wrap their reinvented selves in its defining cloak. The Reeds did so by going vegan.

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