Prof. Kyla Tompkins

Prof. Kyla Wazana Tompkins discussed America's "first health food guru" Sylvester Graham, his austere 1830s diet and the epidemic it was designed to combat on the public radio program "BackStory with the American History Guys," airing across the country this week.

Tompkins puts the diet in context of American history, the health scare it addressed and the major economic changes taking place at the time.

"All of a sudden," explains Tompkins "an enormous amount of single young people were leaving family farms, moving to the city and becoming involved in the industrialized life of the nation. All of these young people, men and women, are living on their own for the first time out of parental control."

The diet called for lots of vegetables and hearty wheat bread, included prohibitions on alcohol, tea, coffee, sugar, spices and absolutely no meat. It was designed to combat a new health threat – a masturbation epidemic.

Tompkins, an associate professor of English and gender studies, is the author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (2012), which won 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize from the American Studies Association.

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