May 11, 1981 12:00 PM

I think it’s ridiculous to call me ‘Gary Null, the vegetarian,’ ” he says. “They don’t say ‘Walter Cronkite, the carnivore.’ I’m not a nutrition guru. I’m just a person who wants to share his ideas.” Nevertheless, at 36, Null is indeed “Mr. Vegetarian” to those who religiously tune in to his syndicated radio show (John Lennon was a listener) or have caught him on TV talk shows damning meat and sugar. Books are his other podium. Null’s 16th and latest is The New Vegetarian Cookbook (Macmillan, $7.95). “If we just had a few physicians with the same motivation and knowledge as Null,” says Dr. James Hunt, dean of medicine at the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences, “we’d have a lot fewer sick people.”

Null has built his reputation on what he eats—or, more accurately, what he doesn’t eat. Rather than going cold turkey, he advocates a gradual shift to a meatless diet—first eliminating red meat, then chicken and finally fish. What’s left? “I can show people 100 ways to make tofu taste good,” he says. Another high-protein favorite: wheat gluten that is dipped in batter, quick-fried and, insists Null, “tastes just like chicken—without the fat, the cholesterol and the calories.”

With his sizable audience, Null is a thorn in the side of the food industry and even many in the health food business (“There are junk health foods too,” he points out). But his strongest critics are fellow believers whom Null labels “jealous and opportunistic.”

Null claims to do more investigative reporting on health issues “than anyone else in America.” He has used his program to debunk food additives, fad diets, environmental pollutants and TV ads for children (“When sugar-coated cereals are pushed on kids, that’s true pornography”). He often receives telephone threats, though never more than after his 1980 series on The Politics of Cancer. “I exposed the corruption in the field,” he says, “where the money goes and why no one’s paying attention to successful alternative treatments.” Null believes his critics will go to incredible extremes to stop him. He was stabbed once and though he allows “It could have been a random attack,” he believes otherwise. “That’s why I don’t mention my family or friends over the air.”

Null will say, however, that he is the middle of three sons born to a Parkers-burg, W.Va. bar owner who fought a losing personal battle with alcoholism. “He warned me not to make his mistakes,” says Gary. “As a result I developed an independent way of thinking and living.” Null’s interest in food came from his mother; she managed a local restaurant that featured such home-style dishes as stuffed cabbage and cornbread.

At 18, Gary, then a high school basketball player, gradually eliminated all forms of meat from his diet on the advice of a friend. “I did feel better,” he recalls. He began eating soybeans out of a can and started reading about nutrition. After graduating with a business diploma from a local junior college, Null managed a store for an appliance firm before realizing he wasn’t “a company man” and moving to New York in 1965. He worked for a brief time as a clerk, then opened a primarily vegetarian restaurant. Not long after, a customer invited him to be on a local radio show to talk about vegetarian cooking. That led to TV guest appearances and, in 1977, his own radio program.

Null, a bachelor, divides his time between a spacious West Side apartment and a 50-acre farm in upstate New York where he grows fruits and vegetables. He eats whole grains, dairy products and half a dozen eggs a week. “It’s not the cholesterol that matters,” he claims, “but the quality of the fat in the diet.”

A nondrinker and nonsmoker, 6’1″, 167-pound Null runs about 50 miles a week and practices karate regularly with friends, not all of whom are vegetarians. In fact, he keeps wine and organically raised meats on hand for them. “I want people to feel comfortable,” he explains, “but I also want them to get away from the notion that if they give up meats, all that’s left are sunflower seeds. Just call me the Ralph Nader of nutrition,” he boasts, “and the vegetarian’s Julia Child.”

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