Quitting Cold

updated 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AT AGE 11, JOHN ROBBINS WAS reading Ralph Waldo Emerson. At 13, he chided his synagogue for spending a bit too much on light fixtures—money that could have gone to help a poor neighborhood nearby. And at 21, he decided against joining the family company. "I just didn't want to produce a product that would in any way harm people," he says. The product: ice cream.

John Robbins was the heir apparent to Baskin-Robbins, the company founded by his father, Irv, and an uncle, Burt Baskin, but he had other ideas. "It wasn't like he was manufacturing plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons," says Robbins, now 49. "But I was aware that the more ice cream you eat the more likely you are to have a heart attack." Not only was he not going to make ice cream, he wasn't going to live off it either. "I chose to cut myself off," he says. "I said, 'No trust fund.' " Instead, armed with a master's in humanistic psychology from Antioch College West, he made a modest living as a therapist until hitting the jackpot with his 1987 bestseller Diet for a New America. Since then he has become a leading advocate for health food and holistic living. "I made a choice for integrity," Robbins says. Which, of course, is not one of the 31 flavors.

As Robbins argues in Diet—an extensively researched argument for vegetarianism that earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination—America's dietary habits are profligate. "We eat too much meat, too much packaged food and too much fat," he says. "If the people of this nation ate just 10 percent less beef, the amount of grain we'd save would feed 60 million people."

Medical authorities concur with Robbins—to a point. "Excessive intakes of high-fat dairy products and other saturated fat and cholesterol-containing foods can contribute to heart disease," says Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

Robbins's next target: health care. His latest book, Reclaiming Our Health, published last fall after nearly two years spent interviewing experts and poring over medical journals and research papers, takes on conventional medicine. "There's a myth that health comes from the drugstore," he says. "But I don't think what doctors can do for us is nearly as important as what we can do for ourselves."

Robbins has long been most happy when he was cutting against the grain. A child of affluence, he grew up with two sisters—their mother, Irma, was a full-time homemaker—in an Encino, Calif., mansion with an ice-cream-cone-shaped swimming pool. Although he spent his summers working in his father's ice cream plant, young Rob-bins dodged the title of boss's son. "He'd always ask me to let him off one block before the office, so he could walk in the back door," Irv recalls.

In 1965, Robbins enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, the western axis of '60s student dissent, where he became a vegetarian and a supporter of civil rights. In 1968 two events helped shape his decision to sever ties with the family business: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, which devastated Robbins; and his uncle Burt died of a heart attack, attributable in part, Robbins believed, to an ice cream-rich diet.

Yearning to live off the land, Robbins and his new wife, Deo (known as Annette when they met at Berkeley), moved to a remote island in British Columbia, where he offered yoga and meditation sessions. In 1982 the couple and their son Ocean, now 23, moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., where—unsurprisingly—they grow many of their own veggies. "Healing the planet is what makes him tick," Deo says of her husband of 29 years. "He really does carry the weight of the world on his shoulders." She bore some of the burden by cleaning houses to help with the bills while Robbins set to work writing Diet.

One of the first copies off the press went to Irv Robbins. For a decade, relations between father and son were frosty. "It's every dad's dream to have your son follow you into the business world," says Irv. But they have since grown closer, and Irv, who suffers from diabetes, has even adopted some of his son's dietary advice.

"I think he's quite proud of me now," says Robbins. "He said to me recently, 'Thank God, you had the courage to follow your own star.' "

JOHNNY DODD in Santa Cruz

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