Paleo, vegetarian, or teetotaling? What the presidential candidates' food habits say about them

Here's Why Ben Carson Doesn't Have Any Meat On His Pizza
Here's Why Ben Carson Doesn't Have Any Meat On His Pizza

A corn dog can crown a king.

Well, at least that's the way our current candidates for president seem to be acting these days—never before have politicians' diets come under such scrutiny. Until recently, we heard more about their dalliances with drugs and mistresses than we did about what they like to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


Sure, candidates have always made the requisite "Yummy!" faces while wolfing down a bite—but only one bite—of the latest deep-fried fad at the usual state fairs. They've seemingly always flipped pancakes in New Hampshire, gnawed on pork chops in Iowa, and quaffed domestic beers at blue-collar bars from Sarasota to Seattle.

For many, the goal has been about avoiding legacy-defining pitfalls: Sargent Shriver never lived down the time he yelled out, "Make mine a Courvoisier!" at a working-class bar in Ohio. That gaffe featured prominently in his obituaries when he died 39 years later.

Nowadays, though, some presidential candidates have caught on that, in a world where food obsessions are mainstream, opening up about their personal gustatory journeys is another way to shape image: to present themselves as down-to-earth, health-conscious, bold, or open-minded. Others, not so much. Here are a few of the current crop of candidates who've told us perhaps more than they meant to through food.

Jeb Bush: Disciplined, Bland
"I'm always hungry," the former governor of Florida told The New York Times. "I'm starving to death," he told CNN. It wasn't a metaphor, either: This spring, Bush revealed that he had gone on the Paleo Diet, which helped him shed 40 pounds. This was back before he officially entered the race, in June: His diet was widely interpreted as a strong sign that he was really serious about running this time, a demonstration of discipline that also acknowledged that the American electorate tends to shy away from chubby leaders. At his campaign stops, Bush is known to shove aside starches, dairy, and refined sugars for almonds, salads, and grilled-chicken lunches. (He's fessed up to cheating with wine and to splurging on Mexican once a week.)

See Jeb and his brother George W. through the years:

But the diet may have backfired. Donald Trump has repeatedly blasted Bush for being "low-energy," and a former Trump advisor blamed Bush's diet for his tepid campaign. "That Paleo Diet," Roger Stone told CNN. "Get this guy a cheeseburger."

Hillary Clinton: Surprisingly Normal, Pro-Hummus
The ex-secretary of state's e-mail woes didn't only provide fodder for her GOP enemies, they also gave the public an insight into her position on everyday victuals. In one e-mail exchange, she opts for the acorn- and butternut-squash soup. In another, she reveals she likes skim milk in her tea. And, she has a social life that she looks forward to after all the politicking: In another exchange, she makes plans with Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland to "wrap this up in the Senate and go drink something unhealthy!" In other words, her e-mails cast her as a much more down-to-earth and relatable person than millions of dollars in painstakingly researched marketing.

The closest Clinton comes to food-based controversy is when a childhood friend forwarded her an article about DePaul University, which was planning a referendum on whether to ban Sabra hummus from the cafeteria. (The Israeli company that is joint owner of Sabra—also half-owned by PepsiCo—financially supported an Israeli Defense Force unit that critics have accused of human-rights violations.) But Clinton simply responds: "I love Sabra hummus—whatever that means!"

Chris Christie: Ambitious, Stubborn
Like we said, Americans generally don't like to elect overweight presidents, and pols are acutely aware of it. So when New Jersey's famously rotund governor had lap-band surgery in 2013 and went on a diet that contributed to his losing as much as 100 pounds, political observers took it as the clearest indication yet that he was gunning for the White House. (Blunt as ever, Christie reportedly told donors that he needed to lose weight to alleviate concerns about whether he'd be healthy enough to serve.) Yet Christie still boasts that he picks at his vegetables, only eating the cucumbers, lettuce, and green beans. "I'm not nearly as interested in food as I used to be. But that hasn't all of a sudden made me a huge vegetable fan," he told People.

See Christie's weight loss:

Bernie Sanders: Black Meals Matter, Doesn't Really Want Your Deviled Eggs
The plainspoken U.S. senator from Vermont has periodically upstaged presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton, but has in turn been upstaged at his own rallies by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. To bridge the cultural gap, The Nightly Show's Larry Wilmore in September invited Sanders to a Soul Food Sit-Down that included fried chicken, green beans, deviled eggs, and biscuits. Sanders playfully tried to snatch an egg away from Wilmore, but didn't actually eat anything. Instead, he was a lot more interested in discussing the Finnish approach to healthcare and figuring out what "on fleek" means. None of any of that should surprise anyone.

Donald Trump: Does Whatever the Hell He Wants
The Donald has been ridiculed as an elitist for eating pizza with a fork (he weirdly scrapes off and eats the toppings and skips the crust), but his favorite sandwich is a good old-fashioned, blue-collar meatloaf. He drinks diet sodas but avoids coffee and tea. He has been a strict teetotaler his entire life despite having launched, and left behind, a line of Trump-branded pale ales and vodka-cranberry-champagne cocktails. He may be the last person in New York who's still really into red velvet cake. He's offended the sensibilities of steak snobs by always ordering his meat well-done, but also stuck his name on short-lived chains of Southwest-themed steakhouses and oyster bars where, presumably, the waiters suggested that the "World's Greatest Steaks" be ordered medium-rare or cooler.

In other words, those searching for consistency or logic in the larger-than-life personality's eating habits don't get that that sort of thing is beside the point. He's Donald Trump. He does whatever the hell he wants.

Ben Carson: Takes His Own Medicine, Doesn't Understand the Point of Popeye's
The current darling of the GOP right is a deeply religious social conservative, which is why most people are shocked to learn that he's also a longtime vegetarian. In fact, he's the only vegetarian running for president for a major party, a genuinely bold position: As of 2013, a whopping 30 percent of Republicans have a negative view of vegetarians (versus only 16 percent of Democrats), the kind of poll numbers that can seriously sway a primary. And his diet certainly won't endear him to agricultural states that rely on a robust meat industry. Carson doesn't seem to care about that; health concerns and his faith converted him to herbivore status decades ago. "It might take 20 years," Carson told The Vegetarian Times in 1990. "But eventually there will no longer be a reason for most people to eat meat. And animals will breathe a sigh of relief."

See images of Ben Carson on the trail:

But Carson's vegetarianism got him hot water when he tried to walk back controversial comments about the Umpqua Community College shootings by relating an anecdote about being held up at at gunpoint at a Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen. That prompted questions about whether he made up the robbery, cheated on his vegetarian diet, or is the sort of freak of nature who can walk into a Popeye's and not be seduced by that delicious, crispy fried chicken.

More from Bon Appetit:
A Little Spice Makes Everything Nice: 8 Cozy Cinnamon Recipes
21 Great Date Night Menu Ideas
To Swap or Not to Swap? A Guide to Not-So-All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flours
7 Ways to Turn Yesterday's Stale Bread Into Tonight's Dinner

RELATED: 2016 candidates chow down on the competition