Three Good Books on Diet and Nutrition
In an ocean of bad stuff, here’s some worthwhile reading.
Quick reviews of three new books on diet and nutrition. Each offers something slightly different, but I think you’ll detect some underlying commonalities. All are interesting and worth a look.
Fitzgerald is a prolific nutrition and fitness writer, probably best known for his books on getting to the right racing weight. In this book, he takes aim at the long list of dietary approaches that claim to be the “One True Way” to eat healthily, arguing instead for what he calls “agnostic healthy eating.” As you’d expect, he takes shots at various popular diets — Paleo, vegan, low-carb, low-fat, raw, and so on — but this isn’t really a debunking book. Frankly, if you’re a devoted adherent to one of these diets, this book probably won’t change your mind.
Instead, Fitzgerald starts with some evolutionary and sociological musing on why humans are so inclined to sort themselves into distinct dietary tribes. And he points out, correctly, that the only reason so many diet fads are able to coexist is that none of them is really able to prove itself as superior:
But science has not identified the healthiest way to eat. In fact, it has come as close as possible (because you can’t prove a negative) to confirming that there is no such thing as the healthiest diet. To the contrary, science has established quite definitively that humans are able to thrive equally well on a variety of diets. Adaptability is the hallmark of man as eater. For us, many diets are good while none is perfect.
So what is “agnostic healthy eating”? It amounts to a recognition that there’s no perfect diet, but some foods are better than others:
The nearest thing to a community of agnostic healthy eaters I’ve encountered is the community of professional endurance athletes… They simply eat as the dietary guidelines based on mainstream nutrition science would have them eat, which is to say they eat everything, but they eat a lot more of the healthiest foods (such as vegetables) than they do of the least healthy foods (such as soft drinks).
Now, the problem with debunking is that it leaves a void.If all these diets are wrong, what’s right? To that end, Fitzgerald introduces a ranking and a points system as a guide to healthy agnostic eating. He doesn’t push the points system — it’s just there to help if you need guidance. The key (which he has introduced in previous books) is a ranking of 10 categories of food, and the goal is simply that, wherever a food falls in that hierarchy, you should generally aim to have more of the foods thats rank above it and less of the foods that rank below it. Here’s the hierarchy:
– nuts, seeds, and healthy oils
– high-quality meat and seafood
– whole grains
– refined grains
– low-quality meat and seafood
– fried foods
And you know what? I agree. You can quibble about some of the details, but this is not a bad description of the way I aim to eat. I’ll eat anything, more or less, but always aiming to have more of the things at the top of the ladder than at the bottom. If you’re a fellow dietary agnostic, the book is worth a read, if only for reassurance that you’re not the only one!
Let me start by disclosing that I had blueberries and chia (among many other things) on my cereal this morning, and have quinoa on a regular basis — choices influenced, no doubt, by all the hype these and other foods have received as so-called “superfoods.” So do I really believe in superfoods? Well, it’s complicated — and I think Jennifer Sygo has the same feeling. I met Sygo at a sports nutrition conference in New York last year and have read her newspaper columns, and I have a lot of respect for her expertise and approach. She has practical experience working with elite Canadian athletes, and she values evidence over hype. Here’s what she has to say about superfoods on the first page of her introduction:
Ironically, considering this book’s title, I actually struggle with the term superfood. Maybe it’s the Marxist in me, but I’m concerned that it unfairly elevates certain foods above others, leaving us to feel that if our favourite veggie isn’t on the list, then it must not have much value… The fact is, for all of our perceived cleverness, we simply don’t know that much about our food, and we certainly don’t know enough to say exactly what makes a true “superfood.” Even the ones that seem the most nutritious have precious little research to tell us whether those extra nutrients translate into anything particularly meaningful...
I think these caveats are bang on the money — and very important to keep in mind as you peruse the rest of the book, which takes a deep look at a very long list of supposed superfoods. The chapters divide them into various categories — overhyped, underhyped, old classics, unfairly maligned, downright bad, etc. The information is accurate, comprehensive, and well-researched, so it’s a great resource. The one thing you have to remember is that even the entries that get rave reviews are still just one isolated food; healthy eating is about establishing good patterns of overall eating, not maxing out on a few superfoods.
3. The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, Yoni Freedhoff
I actually gave this a quick review back in December for my holiday book list, but I wanted to mention it again because it wasn’t actually released until last month. The first thing to say is: don’t let the title fool you. It sounds a bit like one of the diet cults that Matt Fitzgerald warns against, and the cover even promises a “10-day plan” to fix your diet. In truth, though, Freedhoff is a dietary agnostic just like Fitzgerald, though he’s more tolerant of diverse approaches that have worked for his clients (he’s an obesity doctor). To him, the goal is to find a healthy and sustainable way of eating that works for you, and that you can live happily with for the rest of your life, not to found a new religion. And that 10-day plan? It’s not some sort of crazy juice purge — the days include themes like Diarize, Cook, Think, Exercise, and so on. In other words, it’s not an instant fix, it’s a thoughtful look at what goes wrong for so many people when they try dieting, and a practical guide to overcoming these pitfalls.