It shouldn’t surprise anybody who followed the race for New York City mayor that Eric Adams, who won and will take office on January 1, 2022, has a book out called Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses. (Hay House, 2020, 240 pages.) During one of the Democratic primary debates, the moderator asked each of the candidates their favorite bagel. Most answered that they liked an Everything Bagel with a smear. Eric Adams was the only one who replied that he doesn’t eat bagels.
A New Yorker running for mayor who doesn’t eat bagels!? He’s also an ex-cop who doesn’t eat donuts!
But he used to. And his dinners were most often fast food from the dollar menu.
Then one day in March, 2016, as he tells us in the book’s introduction, he woke up nearly blind, his right eye bloodshot. His doctor’s diagnosis: diabetes. Adams was prescribed the usual medications. “When I left the pharmacy after my diagnosis, I thought: Is this really my future? I had put myself through college, worked my way up from a beat cop to a captain to the New York State Senate and then to Brooklyn Borough Hall. I had a plan to become mayor of New York one day. I stared at those sad little pills in that sad little box and thought: I’ve come too far to live out of a pillbox, man. There must be a better way. A healthier way.”
He outlines his better way in “Healthy at Last,” a book that I found useful not only in its advocacy and practical advice for adopting a vegan diet and a healthier way of living, but also in the glimpses it might be giving of the man who will be the 110th mayor of New York City.
After consulting experts and doing research, Adams embarked on a vegan diet with his girlfriend Tracey Collins: lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains; no meat, fish, dairy, nor eggs; also no “processed snack foods,” no sugary cereals, no soft drinks. He gives the clear impression that within two months, he had lost 35 pounds and reversed his diabetes. “When I returned to my original doctor, he looked at my new blood work and gasped….’It’s like you were never diabetic at all.’”
The introduction provides an alluring personal testimonial, and, like many such testimonials, leads to a pitch (or, if you prefer, a promise): “You’ll see that my experience, as miraculous as it may seem, isn’t special…this book can help you along the path to good health…Trust me: if I can become healthy at last after suffering from diabetes so advanced that I woke up blind, so can you.”
Will he make similar bids for us to trust his promises as mayor, and will we? Will they seem….exaggerated, even if well-meaning?
If I was suspicious about his turnaround happening all within two months, “Healthy At Last” is diligent in providing evidence for the soundness of his advice – citing scientific studies, quoting experts (complete with endnotes and an index.) It’s also smoothly written, well-organized, and full of the kind of extra-culinary advice (“Move your body,” “Breathe,” “Find a spiritual practice”) that you routinely find in best-selling books by experienced self-help authors. And that made me suspicious in a different way. Sure enough, this suspicion was confirmed in the acknowledgements page, where Adams thanks his “co-writers” Gene Stone and Nicholas Bromley. Bromley’s bio (listed on his own website, not in this book) identifies him as a “ghostwriter” who “has collaborated on more than fifteen books, including two New York Times No. 1 bestsellers, Forks over Knives and Plant Strong.” Stone’s (again, on his website, not this book) identifies himself as the author, co-writer or ghostwriter of fifty books; “for the last two decades he has focused primarily on plant-based diets and their relationship to health, animal protection, and the environment.”
This is not a scandal; it’s a sign that Adams seeks out experts; at least he acknowledges them somewhere.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that far higher up in the acknowledgements – right after he thanks to “my partner in life and in health, Tracey Collins” – Adams thanks “my strategist and friend Rachel Atcheson” who “worked tirelessly alongside me at Borough Hall, and in her very limited free time, she worked tirelessly on this book.” (A tiny red flag went up when I read that, thanks to the trouble ex-Govenor Andrew Cuomo got into for using his tireless staff for his book – perhaps an entirely different situation, I don’t know.)
Adams gears the book to African-American eaters. The entire second chapter (of the four in the book) is a fascinating history of soul food — it’s rooted in slavery, when the slaves were given only the inedible part of the farm animals to eat, and had to make them edible — and how this evolved into the Black community’s disproportionate preference for fast food. The reason for this attention is laid out right from the start, in the foreword by cardiologist Dr. Kim Allan Williams, Sr.: “soul food is extremely harmful…the source of so many African Americans developing premature heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic diseases…Cooking and eating animals – especially in the unhealthy ways of the soul-food tradition – has helped African Americans become the sickest demographic in the country.” Adams acknowledges the pride that Black people take in soul food (it exists in his own family) while emphasizing the urgent need to re-create the recipes using healthy, plant-based alternatives.
If the second Black mayor of New York thus aims this book towards a quarter of his constituency (who reportedly were largely responsible for getting him elected), “Healthy At Last” offers plenty of tips that are of use to anybody concerned about what they eat, whether or not they suffer from chronic illness. There is a useful section on reading food labels, especially how to judge a loaf of bread. Don’t fall for meaningless marketing terms like “multigrain.” The healthiest loaves have no more than three ingredients. (“… as few chemicals added as possible.”) Look at the fiber content, and multiply the number by six. If that number is not more than the total number of carbohydrates in the bread per serving, then don’t buy it.
As reassuring as this willingness to give such specific advice, it’s not always reliable. He warns against using oil. There’s a section bluntly entitled “Skip the Oil.” Cooking oils are “unhealthy” and “wasteful,” including so-called “extra-virgin olive oil,” and “there are plenty of ways to cook without using it.” Yet most of the 50 or so recipes in the last chapter of the book include oil. They are not his recipes; they are from cookbook authors, chefs, doctors and celebrities (The recipe for black bean tacos by Paul McCartney lists as its first ingredient “1 tablespoon olive oil.”) But Adams (presumably) chose them.
What may be the greatest preview of his tenure of mayor are the actions he took as Brooklyn Borough President as part of his newfound nutritional mission. He helped launch the Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program in conjunction with NYC Health and Hospitals at Bellevue, and he supported Meatless Mondays in all 1800 of the city’s public schools, a program that’s spread to other city agencies. Will it now spread even further, and to other days of the week?