Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book should have been titled, "My Diet: Eat What I Eat Because It's Old (aka Real) Food."
Based on the contents of this book, I was not surprised to learn that Planck's nutritional science credentials consist of the fact that she grew up on a farm and created several farmer's markets throughout London and Washington, D.C.
Ironically, despite having an issue with Planck's blatant cherry-picking of the same science she often criticizes, I agree with the basic premise of the book, which is that we need to eat more "real food." Planck loosely defines real food as "old" food or food grown/raised on the farm, harvested and sold locally, and, which by default, is minimally processed.
And there is a certain truth to what she says. So many beautiful foods have been demonized from steak to eggs to milk to fruit to potatoes to grains to butter, all thanks to someone's take on the latest research about what is good for us and what is bad for us. But like Planck, I suspect the real problem isn't "real" food, "whole" food, or, as she puts it, "old" food, but highly processed foods that have been manipulated out the wahzoo.
Case in point, I recently worked with a client who was afraid to eat a baked potato in all its natural glory, but yet thought her low-salt, low-fat wheat thins were a health food.
Unfortunately for Planck, and for the reader, she takes too many liberties in making her case. I also thinks she goes way too far. According to Planck, it's not simply good enough to eat more whole foods like fruits and veggies, bean, lentils, unprocessed meats and grains. You have to drink unpasteurized milk from the local dairy, buy imported cheeses made only from small independent farms where all the cows are grass-fed and free to roam as they please, and eat eggs from free-ranging chickens who were fattened up on grubs and other bugs. Believe me. I get it. Our food system has become extreme in many ways, and many of us wouldn't eat some of the things we do if we understood exactly how it got to our table. And surely there are many things that we could improve when it comes to our industrialized farming model. However, most people struggle to get the recommended servings of fruits and veggies let alone locally grown and responsibly farmed fruits and veggies. Nor do we have time to get all our foods from farmer's markets or cook elaborate meals made from scratch.
I also think her message is occasionally inconsistent when it fits her "beliefs" about food. For example, she talks about the importance of eating like our ancestors, but then goes on to sing the praises of fish oil supplements. She scoffs at the connection between cholesterol and heart disease then advises how you can lower your LDL cholesterol through her "real" food approach to eating. She says that saturated fat is actually good for us (contrary to what we are told by many experts or the "establishment"), but doesn't address the difference between saturated fat in meat and those found in things like milk and coconut oil.
She has obviously read a lot and provides a robust bibliography of her sources. Yet I get the sense that she does what so many others do. She tends to regard those things that reinforce her belief highly, while discounting those things that don't.
I think she would have written a better book if she instead focused on the value of whole foods (not her version of real foods) and/or the advantages of a more traditional/local approach to farming as opposed to industrialized farming. Those were the moments in her book where I felt the narrative hit its mark. Only she gets greedy and starts making arguments that feel more grounded in belief and her interpretation of the science than the real science, which is fine as long as she presents it that way. For example, when it comes to saturated fat, the jury is still out, partly because not all saturated fats are created equal. That said, nobody ever said stop eating beef. At least not the experts. They merely said reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat. Right or wrong? We don't know, or at least there is less confidence in the previously held recommendations. But to tell people that saturated fats are actually healthy is also misleading, because once again, it's not that simple. A more useful message for readers is that we don't know. Here is the evidence to date from both sides of the issue. Here is what I believe and why, and here is a common sense approach to interpreting and applying the evidence.
Not a bad book for someone who is already eating a whole foods diet and wants to take it to the next level, but completely unrealistic and even confusing for the average person who wants to make better choices.
Always Hungry?: Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently by David Ludwig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
David Ludwig MD/PhD is an endocrinologist and researcher at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He has become a staunch advocate for a version of healthy eating that roughly mirrors the Mediterranean diet.
In Ludwig's opinion the obesity epidemic and diseases linked to obesity are being driven by our out-of-control consumption of unhealthy processed foods which happen to be high in refined grains and sugar (aka bad carbs.) He also goes out of his way to vindicate fat, claiming that the public's fear of fat is not only unfounded but is partly what led to the real culprit behind our expanding waistlines, the abundance of sugary low-fat alternatives that flooded our grocery store shelves back in the eighties, products that despite backlash movements like Atkins, Paleo, and Keto are still perceived by many to be "healthier" by the general public because they are low-fat.
While he throws in a little science to keep it interesting, the first half of the book could be summarized like this. Fat was wrongly demonized. Sugar soon replaced the fat as manufactures scrambled to give us what we wanted (cheap, fast, tasty food that is also healthy), and consumers gobbled down these low-fat, fat-free, sugar-laden supposedly healthier foods. What nobody told us was that sugar and highly refined grains like white flour lead to huge insulin spikes, and these insulin spikes favor fat storage. They also leave us feeling hungry soon after a meal. But more importantly, thanks to repeated exposure to high levels of insulin, over time our bodies metabolic system has become dysfunctional...favoring fat storage and leaving us feeling hungry, despite eating more than sufficient calories. According to Ludwig, the solution is simple if not intuitive. Want to lose fat? Eat more fat.
The second half of the book is a "how-to" step-by-step process. Ludwig's diet starts off with lots of fat. Though he briefly addresses saturated fat, acknowledging that it may be linked to negative health outcomes, he mainly stays away from this particular topic.
The first (and most restrictive) stage of the diet encourages people to eat 50% fat, 25% carbs, and 25% protein. Heavy on fat and light on carbs (with no grain, sugar, or starchy veggies), this stage is supposed to jump-start weight loss by "healing" the fat cell so that our bodies can get back to doing what they were designed to do: keep us within a healthy weight range.
In stage two, fat decreases to 40%, carbs increase to 35%, and protein stays at 25%. In addition, dieters can begin to add back in whole grains and starchy vegetables with the exception of potatoes (oh the poor potato.)
Stage three provides more options as dieters experiment to find the right macronutrient mix for their body but will generally be closer to 40% fat, 40% carbs, and 20% protein. During this stage, dieters can start adding back in carbs (even some of the bad ones), but are cautioned to limit refined grains and sugar. In the end, the amount of carbs unrefined and refined will vary from person to person.
Ludwig provides recipes, downloadable grocery lists and a whole cache of other forms designed to assist dieters in planning and tracking what they eat as well as documenting how they feel in response to tweaks in the diet. To his credit he also briefly addresses sleep and stress, though not in any great depth.
Conclusion: Much of what Ludwig says is spot on and consistent with the existing research. His diet is designed to be a common sense approach to eating that mirrors the Mediterranean diet. The book is peppered with personal excerpts in which people rave about the results. That said, knowing the statistics on weight loss, I'd be interested to know what the 2-year or 3-year success rate for the plan was. Do the individuals in this book actually successfully keep the weight off? Do they continue to eat in a manner that allows them to maintain their healthy weight?
And while the goal here is to help people make better choices, it feels an awful lot like a diet. In that sense, the book's biggest weakness is that while it tries to appear as if it is an individualized program focused on making sensible, healthy choices, it really isn't. It's a diet, or at least it starts off that way.
My guess is that many people will have success, at least initially. But what I've found in working with people in the real world is that real and lasting behavior change usually takes more than a book (even one advocating for a reasonable approach) and a few months making better food choices.
Getting people to change their diets over the long haul is no easy feat, especially when instant weight loss isn't guaranteed. Of course, Ludwig's first phase of the diet is designed to foster some quick weight loss. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Ludwig's approach will really make any difference for most people as there are already lots of reasonable dietary approaches out there. He seems to suggest people fail on diets because they get hungry, and they won't get hungry on his diet therefore people will not fail on his diet. I, on the other hand, think many people succeed on many different diets because they work in the short-term. Then most people gain it back because life and habit take over and they haven't yet developed the long-term strategies, motivation, and support systems necessary to foster lasting change.
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The food industry's motive behind adding obscene amounts of salt, sugar, and fat to processed foods wasn't to make us fat. That was just a side effect. What they wanted was to give consumers a product so tempting, so irresistible that not only would we buy it, we would buy lots of it again and again.
This is an amazing look into the food industry and the history of our grocery store shelves. It sheds some light on how things got so out of control, and why the food industry isn't in any rush to kowtow to the public health advocates who claim that our modern diet (heavy on processed foods) is responsible for a whole host of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
What shocked me the most is how much money is spent to ensure we buy foods that we know we should avoid. From brain scans that show how our brains react to sugar, salt, and fat to thousands of focus groups used to discover the formula for the perfect end product to mega marketing campaigns that appeal to our emotional brains to product placement that directly influences our purchases. Food companies are using food science and psychology to find the cheapest way to give us what we want (convenient and cheap food that tastes good) while maximizing their profits.
Unfortunately, the food companies are in the business of making food to make money. Period. The way they see it, their job is not to police consumer behavior but instead to meet an unfilled demand better than the other guy.
There was a recent study that concluded unhealthy diets now kill more people than tobacco, which is ironic when you consider that Phillip Morris actually bought out Kraft Foods and General Foods in the 80s as they sought to diversify.
And don't think our elected officials or other government organizations are going to rescue us from ourselves. How can they when they have to balance the public health implications of processed foods with the mega millions/billions that is big food?
If only big food would start to police themselves. But this seems unlikely since even if one company tried to do the right thing, the moral thing some would argue, unless their competitors also agreed, they'd simply lose market share and get punished for doing the right without anything changing.
The only thing that will really change the current state of our food system is consumer demand, and thanks to the fact that we are hooked on processed food, it's doubtful. But don't fear. The food companies have our collective back. They are on it. In fact, some are seizing the opportunity created by gastric bypass surgery to develop shakes that a patient recovering from the surgery can tolerate.
Moss seems to think that education is the consumer's best chance. Maybe if we realize how the food we're eating has been engineered to keep us eating (and overeating) by giving us what we want, whether it is good for us or not, than we have a hope of resisting temptation and making better choices.
This is a great read. It provides a historical perspective of the food industry. But it also adds valuable insight into the role that salt, fat, and sugar play in obesity.
Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.
I'll never forget the first time I can across this meme on social media. Coincidence? Probably, but powerful none-the-less. After all, (thanks to cortisol), who hasn't felt the need to indulge in some sugary, fatty comfort food after a particularly difficult day. For those unfamiliar with cortisol, it is a hormone produced in response to stress and is associated with cravings for high calorie (high fat) and quick energy (high sugar) foods. Once upon a time, such a physiological response helped our ancestors survive, but in a culture of easily accessible, cheap, processed foods, it has the potential to make us fat and maybe even sick.
When stressed, many people not only overeat, they eat the wrong foods. If stress eating involved indulging in cucumbers and apples, it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, after an especially hard day we reach for cookies, candy, ice-cream, pasta, chips and other highly processed foods that have been carefully engineered to tempt and please us with the deadly dietary triad known as fat, sugar, and salt.
While occasionally treating ourselves to a bowl of ice-cream isn't likely to pack on the pounds, routinely gobbling down the whole gallon of Rocky Road because life happens probably will. Sure, we might feel better for a little while, at least until the ice-cream is gone and the guilt and possibly even self-loathing takes hold, leaving us feeling just as empty as the now-empty container of Rocky Road. Then comes the finale. What the heck. I've already screwed up. I might as well finish off that open bag of chocolate cookies in the pantry while I'm at it. Emotional eating, guilt, binge eating, more guilt. It's a destructive cycle that can spiral out of control.
Stress is a fact of life, and learning to deal with stress and our emotions in a positive way is a life skill worth learning, and ice-cream washed down with chocolate chip cookies no matter how good it might feel in the moment is usually not the answer. Luckily, there are better (healthier) ways of dealing with negative emotions. Activities like meditation, exercise, and mindfulness have all been shown to be effective methods for managing stress. In extreme cases, consulting a therapist to address relevant underlying issues might also be warranted. Finally, if you do turn to ice-cream (a bowl or the gallon) to lift your spirits, remember to keep it in perspective. An occasional indulgence (or even overindulgence) is not going to significantly impact your health. So relax, and don't add insult to injury. Put the bag of cookies down.
Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World by David Ludwig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Good for what it is, a book written for families who are struggling to help overweight children.
I have four kids, none of which are overweight. But I imagine this may help a number of parents whose kids have issues with food and weight.
The first half of the book talks about the delicate nature of dealing with childhood obesity. It also discusses the differences and similarities between obesity in adults and children.
The second half of the book is really a how to, with a detailed plan that involves actual recipes.
Dr. Ludwig is an expert on childhood obesity and the founder of the OWL program (Optimal Weight for Life), which is part of Boston Children's Hospital.
Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is that it provides a history of dieting that goes back to the 1800s. According to Kolata few of today's revolutionary diets are revolutionary but rather recycled versions of some other previous approach. Interestingly, most didn't work then and they don't work now. Sure, they may provide some temporary weight loss, but generally speaking, the overwhelming majority of people who lose weight on a diet will gain it back.
Kolata skillfully weaves the stories of several would be "losers" into the narrative. They are participating in a two-year study that compares the Atkins diet to a more traditional low-fat diet. Their story is sad and familiar. Many have lost weight before, only to regain it back. Most believe that this time will be different. Only it isn't, which leaves Kolata to postulate that maybe, just maybe, weight loss isn't realistic. At one point she even questions if being overweight is indeed as unhealthy as we are being told. She argues that the health risks of all levels of obesity with the exception of the morbidly obese aren't associated with poorer health outcomes. In fact, in a study she cited, individuals who are in the first and second classification of obesity actually lived longer.
I think what gets lost in this particular book and others like it is that the authors talk about overweight as if it were a narrowly defined condition. Yet, there are huge differences between being 10 pounds overweight and being 150 pounds overweight. Kolata also seems to overlook that the failure of "dieting" may be more a reflection of the diet and less a reflection of our ability to lose weight and keep it off.
At one point, Kolata, citing Jeffrey Friedman - a molecular biologist who discovered leptin, suggests that maybe the increased incidence of overweight and obesity is a natural progression of our genome. After all, we are getting taller. Why not fatter?
This is the second book I've read recently that questions the health risks associated with being overweight. Unfortunately, the study referenced investigates weight as it relates to incidence of death. It is very possible that the behaviors that lead to weight gain and not the weight itself is to blame for things like the rise in diabetes. And while death is certainly a poor health outcome, living with diabetes, even if it doesn't shorten your life, can impact its quality. Kolata seems to ignore this. I get the point that she is trying to make. Our focus on weight and weight alone is misled. It is more likely that it is the behaviors that lead to overweight and obesity and/or result in weight loss that may be relevant to our health as opposed to the weight itself.
All in all, I felt the book was very informative. I enjoyed learning more about the history of dieting. I also found the interviews with the two-year study participants to be eye-opening albeit a little disheartening.
How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm going to start off this review by qualifying the perspective from which I read the book.
I have a longstanding passion in all things health and fitness that started at the age of 10, when as a chunky child, I decided I wanted to be healthy.
Joining my first gym at 13, it wasn't long until I started teaching group fitness. A Bachelors in Nutritional Sciences seemed like the next logical step. But it didn't end there. While continuing to branch out by teaching every mode of group fitness I could find, I pursued and obtained a Professional Master in Physical Therapy. Since then I have completed over a half-dozen fitness certifications, taught every fitness class you can imagine, counseled tons of patients and clients, and earned hundreds if not approaching a thousand hours of professional continuing education that include anything from the therapeutic applications of yoga to vegan nutrition to the strengths and pitfalls of alternative medicine. I also teach a personal training certification course through our local community college and am currently pursuing an advanced certificate in sports nutrition. Most importantly I walk the walk. I exercise daily, eat clean, and continue to seek out knowledge with an open mind, always ready to adjust my views. I read, I study, I teach, I practice, I preach...I breath fitness and nutrition on a regular basis.
This being the case, I am always reluctant to read a nutrition book written by a MD, or better yet, a journalist who decides he's going to reveal the true secret to eating healthy. But How Not to Die was written by Dr. Michael Greger, who also happens to be the founder of a site that I have been following for a couple years-it's called nutritionfacts.org. Impressed by the site mainly because it generally offers a balanced message that uses research rather than emotion to support its message, I was interested in reading his book.
If I could recommend one book on nutrition, I seriously think this might be it, and here's why:
1. The book is basically about empowering people to take control of their health. The ole "Let Food Be Thy Medicine" philosophy. Dr. Greger does a decent job of acknowledging both the strengths and weakness of our current approach to disease. He makes a strong argument against prescribing drugs for lifestyle related diseases, at least as a first line of defense. Most importantly, he tries to use science as a basis for his views. His main emphasis is on eating more plant-based foods, particularly fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices...etc, while limiting quality (or whole) animal products, and avoiding processed or low quality animal products all together.
2. The book provides a comprehensive review of the scientific literature. I subscribe to several journals, but never have I seen so many studies put into a useful context. That said, his own biases toward a vegan (or animal-free diet) are hard to miss. Still, it's a pretty amazing feat, biases aside. And though I might feel he was a little hard on animal products (all animal products) as a group, I do think he makes some valid points about the food industry and their ability to influence policy and suppress research that doesn't jive with their bottom line. I wished he would have taken more time to make a distinction between different quality animal sources. I mean, there is a big difference between the venison I use in my favorite black bean chili and the industrially farm raised, often abused, overly medicated animals (anti-biotics) that provide meat at most local grocery store chains, or worse, our local fast food joint.
3. If he seems a little "radical" in the first half of the book, he makes up for it in part two, where he puts the "perfect" diet into context, by first acknowledging there is no one perfect diet. Foods aren't necessarily good or bad, though some are better for you than others. His recommendations are not only consistent with everything I've learned over years, they're reasonable and thus doable.
From organic vs non-organic, to gluten-free vs. non-gluten-free, to use supplements or not to use supplements, GMO vs. GMO-free...he touches on so many hot-button topics, and his ideas really are very practical and level-headed.
As someone who has been following (and experimenting successfully) with nutrition for decades, I have watched so many fads come and go and have seen too many scientific studies taken out of context and used to promote some extreme eating philosophy. It's nice to read a book where both the science and art of nutrition receive equal time.
I'm not a vegan, though I don't eat much meat. That said, I believe quality animal products can have a place in a healthy diet. However, I don't think there is anyone who can argue against the benefits of a plant-based diet. In fact, if you look at most popular diets, the one common thread is the emphasis on whole foods, but especially fruits and veggies. Ultimately, I think that is the message that Greger puts forward. Good stuff!
**A little interesting background. Greger started nutritionfacts.org with the support of two philanthropists. It is now a self-sustaining non-profit. The website and its content are free forever with no ads and no corporate sponsorships. He claims that sales from his DVDs go back to the site and proceeds from his books and speaking engagements go to charity.
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Certainly good advice, but unfortunately, Michael Pollan should have stopped there.
Ugh...what a huge disappointment. This is a perfect example of why journalists should not give nutritional advice or write these kinds of books.
Pollan starts out by stating the obvious, but then quickly learns what many nutritional professionals and public health advocates do, the obvious isn't sexy and it certainly doesn't make a bestseller. As a result the chapters that follow his iconic slogan are little more than poppy-cock for the masses.
I'm going to break this review down by sections, because in fairness, some were better than others.
Section I: The Age of Nutritionism - 1 star
I guess the first step in any straw man argument is to give it a name, in this case nutritionism.
The problem is like others before him, he argues against an opponent that never existed.
According to Pollan a bunch of questionable studies led some incompetent (if well-meaning) scientists to determine that saturated fat was bad. As a result the government developed anti-fat nutritional guidelines that the public embraced wholeheartedly, but that ultimately made them unhealthier.
He repeatedly points to these "nutritionists" (which he somehow lumps in with greedy capitalists and which almost feels like a derogatory label the way he uses it) that misled the public with their "junk science" and continue to do us all an injustice in their efforts to further our understanding of the nutritional sciences.
Interestingly, I happened to be a college student in the eighties studying, of all things, Nutritional Sciences (and while I usually avoid reading these types of books). As such I can tell you that his characterizations are incorrect at best and dishonest at worst. In the late seventies and early eighties there was a push toward limiting fats to 30 percent of total calories. It was further recommended that less than 10 percent of total calories should come from saturated fats based on the belief that it was related to CHD.
The merits of this recommendation have since come under fire and has spurred more research...because after all that is what science demands (that it constantly improves upon itself). But the important part of the discussion that is left out is that this was only one small part of the guidelines. The USDA also recommended that of the carbs ingested at least half those should be from complex carbs and not from processed sources. And they didn't stop there. They recommended eating one serving of fish at least two times a week. They recommended eating 2-3 servings each of fruits and veggies daily. They recommended limiting salt intake to under 2300 milligrams. They recommended eating a diversity of food. They recommended eating foods high in fiber. They recommended limiting sweets. Okay...so you get where I'm going with this.
However, as is so often the case, capitalists saw an opportunity and the food companies began a massive anti-fat campaign that would help to distort certain aspects of the USDA recommendations to the point that low-fat became the most important aspect of a healthy diet. Of course, even Pollan admits that people didn't cut out fat, they simply ate more low-fat foods in addition to the fat they were already consuming. Mostly ultra-processed foods whose fat had been replaced with sugar and salt.
Bottom line, people didn't get fat because they followed the USDA dietary guidelines of the eighties which by the way with the exception of a few tweaks based on additional research and changing needs of society (and saturated fat has still not been completely vindicated), the recommendations have not changed significantly. People got fat because they became ultra-consumers of the cheap and easy...just like they have become ultra-consumers of cheap and easy everything from clothes, to shoes, to electronics, to home décor. The West is a culture of excess everything.
Pollan further contends that "nutritionists," which by the way is a poorly defined and meaningless term then and now so I'm not exactly sure who he is referring to, were obsessed with isolating nutrients...again, totally not true. In fact, the food pyramid, despite its flaws, was designed to encourage consumption of a wide range of foods to ensure that Americans ingested a diversity of nutrients. Vitamin supplements were also discouraged and seen as inferior to eating real food as nutritional scientists and dieticians have always acknowledged and appreciated the symbiotic relationship of various nutrients within food as well as those that exist between various foods in the diet.
Pollan then blasts the science itself, pointing out all the shortcomings innate in nutritional research, shortcomings that those who actually study nutrition appreciated long before Pollan pointed it out. But just because something is difficult to study doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It also doesn't necessarily invalidate the research. Ironically, Pollan himself has no problem citing these flawed studies later on in support of points he is trying to make. And again, Pollan's misrepresentation is huge. Anyone who attempts to study nutrition understands the difficultly in isolating the effect of any one nutrient. And yet we somehow know more now than we did say 50 years ago. The fact that we aren't any healthier as a nation isn't necessarily a reflection of what we know or don't know. Using Pollan's own argument trying to tease out all the cofounding factors is futile. He seems to suggest that our anti-fat campaign, which led to an increase in the amount of highly processed carbs being eaten is responsible for the rise in obesity and diseases like diabetes...and he may be right...or partially right...or completely wrong. It is widely accepted that the obesity epidemic is probably the result of several cofounding factors.
Anyway, I cringed reading this first section. I expected so much more from Pollan. Ironically, despite disagreeing with his characterizations and the logic employed, I agree with a number of his conclusions. In short, I agree that we need to look at foods as greater than the sum of their parts. I also agree that science can have limitations and can be flawed. In that sense, a recommendation is often a best guess based on what we think we know at any given point, and people need to understand this.
Section II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of - 3 stars
I felt this was the strongest of the three sections. Whatever the culprit, it does appear that the Western Diet contributes to poor health outcomes.
Pollan makes some good points about the food chain and our interconnectedness with our environment. Ironically, the most recent panel of experts that propose changes to the USDA guidelines for the first time ever suggested that the new revised guidelines should take into consideration not only the internal impact of our eating habits but also the external factors. To Pollan's credit, I think his efforts have played a crucial role in this type of thinking.
His argument for whole foods is sound. If the nutritional research to date seems to agree on anything it is that whole unprocessed foods are generally superior.
His argument from quality to quantity also has some merit, though I think there is still some debate about the significance. For example, there are several studies (probably flawed if you bought into section one of Pollan's book) that suggest industrially produced produce is lower in nutrition than its locally grown, organic counterpart. However, the relevance of this in a society where our food options are endless is debatable as it may be a non-factor. The reality is in the US we have access to superior nutrition. We might not always make the right choices, but given a little vigilance 99.5% of us should be able to meet our nutritional needs even if the products we are eating are nutritionally inferior, not organic, and purchased from the grocery store.
The whole omega-3 section is a little weak. He spends the entire first third of the book telling us why these nutritional studies are flawed and can't be trusted and why we should not be isolating nutrients and then seems to put the omega-3s on some sort of nutritional pedestal, repeatedly referencing the science to make his case.
Section III: Getting Over Nutritionism - 2 stars
While I applaud and agree with many of Pollan's recommendations, I have a feeling they were recommendations that could only be made by a man in his unique position.
Unfortunately, I think many of Pollan's ideas are shortsighted and impractical for the average family. They look good on paper but are too idealistic as to really make a difference.
Pollan's plan to buy local in season produce, to cook more and eat together paints a nostalgic picture that panders to our natural bias. But really...
Seriously. I see how the average American eats and it isn't pretty. And I know from talking to them that most of them want to do better. But they are struggling to meet the demands of their job and family. They need real world solutions for their world and while some of Pollan's suggestions may be helpful most don't even come close to reaching the people who need his help the most.
At one point Pollan claims that you wouldn't be reading this book if you already got it...but I would argue he's wrong. This book most certainly speaks to the people who already get "it," but offers little for the people who really, really need it. In fact, I would be willing to bet that the majority of people who bought this book are college educated, or at least educated, do not have diabetes, don't regularly eat at McDonalds, and aren't obese. And if you are, I'm not sure this book offers substantially more than the government's nutritional guidelines he was so quick to criticize.
So by all means...Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
As far as the book...if you already get it and are interested in reinforcing your commitment to eating healthy, then maybe this is worth your time. If you're currently struggling and looking for real life strategies to overcome obstacles, go somewhere else.
I should add, despite not "loving" this book, I am a fan of Pollan and what he is trying to do. His common sense approach to diet is admirable and I think he has done a lot of good and reached a lot of people.
Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Traci Mann received a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and taught several years at UCLA before moving to the University of Minnesota where she founded the Health and Eating Lab. Her research is focused on the psychology of eating.
An overriding theme driving the narrative of her book is her assertion that diets don't work. According to Mann, the research is clear. The majority of weight lost through dieting is regained. She argues (at times successfully, and at other times not so successfully) that the failure of diets is in large part due to the fact that our bodies have a set point (or rather weight range) at which their biological systems fight to stay. She, like others in her field, believe that weight is strongly influenced by genetics and the best that we can hope for is to stay at the lower end of our range.
She also devotes a whole chapter to dispelling what she believes is a common myth, that being fat is synonymous with poor health outcomes. According to Mann, not only are obese people the victims of relentless bullying and shaming, but that the abuse inflicted upon them is misguided because most obese people are not any sicker than their thinner, non-obese peers.
While I found her argument well-intentioned, I also found it to be somewhat insincere. For example, in one sense she is right. Obese people are often stigmatized as fat, lazy, slobs who could be thinner if they really wanted to be. She is also correct when she claims that no good comes from making people feel bad about themselves. But no sooner has she lobbied for the virtues of being obese/overweight then she suggests that not only should we strive to find our set point, but we should also stay at the lower end. If being obese isn't unhealthy, why should we strive for the low end of our set point? Why not the high end? For that matter, why even try?
Another major point in the book is that no one really understands why we are getting fatter, though there are a whole cast of usual suspects from supersized meals, to cheap, high-calorie fast food, to sedentary lifestyles, to genetics, to some unknown environmental factor. The reality is it could be all the above, some of the above, or none of the above.
She repeatedly warns about the futility of focusing on weight (something that may be out of our control at least to some extent), and encourages readers to instead focus on health and healthy behaviors like eating more fruits and veggies and limiting junk food.
I agree with Mann on many levels. 1. I don't think we completely understand what is driving the incidence of obesity. It is very likely a combination of factors. 2. I also agree that diets don't work. She is right. The research is clear. 3. I also share her view about focusing on health and healthy behaviors rather than on weight. It seems logical to assume that if we eat well and not too much while staying active that our bodies will naturally gravitate toward a healthy weight. 4. I also agree with this idea of a set-point. I've experienced this in my own life. Currently in my late 40s, my weight has not fluctuated by more than 10 lbs, with the exception of my 4 pregnancies. It does in fact seem as if my body gravitates toward a specific range. 5. What I don't agree with is her suggestion that obesity is not only not unhealthy but that it might even be healthy for all we know. It seems to me that part of the repulsion many people feel when they see fat humans is no different than the repulsion they feel when they see a fat animal. Yes, thin does not equal healthy and people can, do, and should come in all shapes and sizes, but I think the prejudice against fat goes much deeper and is maybe even more visceral than simple cultural norms. This absolutely is a slippery slope, but as a PT I see obese patients whose orthopedic problems are absolutely impacted negatively by their weight. We need to be able to separate the health risks of obesity or of the behaviors that typically result in obesity and the worth of those who may be struggling with extra weight. Being overweight does not make you a bad person, but it may impact your health.
Finally, Mann spends the last third of her book giving would-be-dieters advice that isn't dieting per see, but more a common sense approach to eating. The only real problem I had with this section is that she constantly uses herself as an example of "what to do." It just feels someone preachy...like if I can do it, so can you.
Overall, despite its faults, there's still some good stuff here.
The Biggest Loser
Shows like the "The Biggest Loser" have successfully launched a new fitness trend, the weight-loss/fitness challenge. Look around. They're everywhere, and their popularity is growing despite the controversy surrounding the original show and its subsequent demise.
The basic concept is simple. Individuals compete over a finite period of time to see who has the most dramatic body transformation as assessed via weight, body composition measurements, or both. It's pretty simple. You might even know someone who has participated in a local challenge.
While many of these programs possess a number of positive attributes, they can also have negative aspects that get overlooked and that may be detrimental to successfully keeping off the weight if overlooked.
Weight-loss challenges are not inherently good or bad, and their current popularity is most certainly a sign of the times. That said, a well-designed challenge can provide participants with support, motivation, and accountability. These are all good things when you're trying to make a lifestyle change. Their biggest weakness seems to be that like other weight-loss strategies they are finite, and probably too short to facilitate real and lasting lifestyle change. That is unless you continue to sign up for new challenges, which is certainly an option.
As a health and wellness coach, I see these fitness challenges as a tool that can be one part of multi-faceted strategy. The design is great for marketing as it appeals to the masses, but 12 weeks is just that, 12 weeks, and unless participants have a realistic after plan, it is likely they will eventually find whatever weight they lose.