Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Mr. America?

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Bernarr Macfadden

Bernarr Macfadden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner, PhD, RD

Every once in a while, it is fun to go back into history and rediscover the fads that were popular then – the story of Bernaar MacFadden is one of them. He was however, very successful and in my opinion, a very fascinating human being.

“In 1913, twenty year old Mary Wlliamson, a runner and muscular swimmer was crowned “Great Britain’s Perfect Woman and as part of her prize was a job offer from fitness guru, forty-four year old, Bernarr MacFadden. The job involved a traveling physical fitness show billed as “The World’s Healthiest Man and Woman.” They performed feats of physical prowess with the big finale featuring Mary’s nightly jump from a seven-foot platform onto MacFadden’s stomach. Another “prize” was becoming Bernarr’s third wife. He proposed one day when the pair was halfway through a ten-mile run and when she accepted, she recalled: “He stood on his head on me for one minute and four seconds.” Who was this man?


Bernarr MacFadden was a man that brought physical culture to America and Europe. “He stood five foot six inches tall and built a fortune from often, but not totally, misinforming the public about nutrition and health.. He was born in 1868 on a farm near Mill Springs, Missouri where his father died when he was four from chronic alcohol consumption.

Bernarr, a sickly boy, was raised by a TB-ill mother who send him away to a cheap boarding school. He later referred to this school as the “starvation school” Bernarr remembered often having peanuts as his only source of nourishment. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was eleven and Bernard, (he changed his name later to Bernaar) was sent to a northern Illinois farm to work for two years where his heath improved. He was then shipped off to St. Louis where his waiting relatives welcomed him, namely Uncle Harvey.

When walking in downtown St. Louis with his uncle one day, he discovered the Missouri Gymnasium and was impressed by the posters of musclemen displayed there. “The sickly young Barnard swore an oath: I’m going to be like them. I’m going to look like them.”

Bernarr obtained a copy of How to Get Strong and Stay So,  a bestseller in 1879 written by William Blaikie, a strongman and endurance athlete. He was further inspired to follow his dream; therefore, in the spring of 1891, Bernarr hung a shingle out that read:



He declared himself a “teacher of physical culture” to become the nation’s first personal trainer. He made up the term, kinisitherapist. No one knew what he meant.


MacFadden’s core belief mimicked the philosophy of Sylvester Graham that blamed toxins, improper diet and exercise habits, lack of sunshine and the use of tobacco and alcohol to be the reasons for most diseases. Bernard despised white flour and called it “dead food” and said: “ I saw that white bread was frequently condemned and I whenever available, secured whole wheat or Graham bread.” He did not, however, carry on the sexual restrictions of Graham.

He began a lecture series on physical culture and put up posters and small ads in the local newspapers. Each lecture started with Macfadden dressed only in a loincloth posing artistically in front of a cabinet lined with black velvet and lit from below to make him appear larger than he was.  His lectures became popular in both the U.S. and Europe.

He taught his nation-wide audiences that fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were vital to good health. Today we know that his teachings about diet were relatively accurate in an era when nutrition knowledge was meager. He was not a true vegan, but used meat sparingly. His favorite food was carrots and he dutifully avoided sugar foods such as candy, cakes, pies and ice cream. He advocated eating only two meals a day and preached moderation while fasting once a week. There are some advocates that now suggest the same regimen.  He did not believe in pasteurization or homogenization of milk. He said that milk could cure many diseases. He avoided alcohol, tobacco. Of course, he advocated brisk walking, lifting weights, and prescribed calisthenics. Today’s body builders consider him the “father of physical culture.”

MacFadden published a culture magazine called Physical Culture. In 1901, he wrote: “Every disease in the human body is simply an endeavor on the part of the body to correct an abnormal condition…. It is the presence of impurities in the blood that make the production of a cold possible…Disease germs consume these poisons, or render them harmless.” By 1910, he ruled over a physical fitness empire. The empire included spas called “healthatoriums”, Physical Culture City and then Physical Culture University. He continued by promoting raw foods and salads every day and used fresh fruits to keep the intestines “antiseptic” to avoid autointoxication. He continued to avoid processed white sugar and flour.


His empire began to crumble. Research led to more knowledge about food components such as vitamins and minerals in the nutrition field. People began to lose interest in MacFadden’s ideas and his popularity declined.

In the final decade of his life, his previous wealth dwindled. He did not give up, however. He jumped out of a plane on his 83rd birthday; he did the same stunt the next year. In 1955, he was 87 and was experiencing liver and urinary tract problems. He fasted to treat his condition, but ironically died three days later due to complications from jaundice and dehydration.


Bernaar MacFadden was one of the most flamboyant and bizarre personalities in American culture; yet many people have forgotten him or have never heard of him today. He was the first food crusader to be known internationally and single-handed created the health and fitness awareness for millions of people. He continued to support detoxing and fasting that carried on the principles of Sylvester Graham. Even though some considered him a “quack,” he fought against medical quackery that began in the early 20th century. At the same time, he supported the medical practices of chiropractic and osteopathic treatments. In many aspects of his career like publishing and advertising, he was truly a genius.


The Strange Tale of a World-Changing Fitness and Sleaze Titan, Bruce Watson, 2013,

Ronald M. Deutsch, The New Nuts Among the Berries, Bull Publishing, 1977

Mark Adams, Mr. America, Harper Collins, 2009


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