Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My favorite books about diet and health

Making a list of favorite books is hard because your favorites change over time, often due to reading something that becomes a new favorite. 

Perhaps it’s easier to be like Tyler Cowen and simply read a ton, absorb what you can, and move on. With that attitude, books are like people you bump into on the street, or who you converse with once on a long train ride. They influence you to various degrees, sometimes more, sometimes less, but in the end it’s all about ideas. Good ones can be packaged in anything from a book to a blog post; don’t be too obsessed with the format, and certainly don’t feel you have to read the whole thing if you get distracted.

I don’t dispute that, but there’s another reason to track favorite books: as a handy introduction to yourself, so others can get a sense of who you are and where you’re coming from.

So with that said, here are my favorite books about diet and nutrition:

  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto   Pollan, Michael
    If you’re confused about diet, this is the best advice yet. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. 
  • Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It     Taubes, Gary
    A well-researched, easy to read but thorough discussion of obesity that concludes that carbohydrates, not calories, are key. The simple, seemingly obvious belief that a person’s weight is a function of “calories in and calories out” will seem much less obvious and mostly wrong by the end of this book.
  • The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health     Durant, John
    The best summary so far of the motivation and principles of ancestral health. The author is a student of Steven Pinker’s, from Harvard, and writes with a general, more academic orientation rather than as a how-to manual. The basic principle, that the modern world is not our natural habitat, makes much sense, and I like the way he applies that rule to diet and exercise, plus sleep and much more.
  • Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health     Robinson, Jo
    A highly practical summary of fruits and vegetables: which are good for you and why. Every page includes interesting, often counter-intuitive tips to eat more healthily. Examples: frozen blueberries are just as healthy as fresh, but broccoli loses most of its nutrition within hours after picking. Carrots cooked with butter are much healthier than raw. Excellent and useful throughout.
  • All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety     Johnson, Nathanael
    Although frustratingly equivocal in its conclusions, I liked the survey of the advantages and disadvantages of “mainstream” versus “alternative” approaches to health, on everything from childbirth, vaccinations, and raw milk.

Far out theories

Some of my favorite health books go slightly beyond the known — or thought-to-be-known — science, and deliberately introduce some speculative ideas, useful both as a reminder of how little science can currently explain and also a hint of ways our view of the world could radically change in the future.

Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease     Ewald, Paul

Published in 2002, this book raises the intriguing possibility that most (perhaps all) serious diseases are caused by infections. Certain types of cancers (e.g. HPV) are already known to have viral origins, but imagine how our thinking would change if — when — someday science discovers infectious agents behind other cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and more. Reading this with other books about the role of microbes has made me far more sensitive to the possibility that science and medicine could one day undergo a huge shift in the way that health and disease are diagnosed and treated.

An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases     Velasquez-Manoff, Moises

Another book that explains the provocative idea that our immune systems need regular stimulation by parasites and other infectious agents, without which we risk unpleasant side effects like allergies, diabetes, and many other nasty conditions. The remarkable correlation between the hygiene of modernity and the rise of autoimmune diseases makes for powerful evidence that science is far behind in understanding all the consequences of our current lifestyles.

Books I don’t like

Maybe later I’ll put together my list of the books (and authors) I don’t care to recommend. I read a ton, including of books that don’t resonate so well with me or about which I seriously disagree. Understanding that list can perhaps save you some trouble, either because you’d prefer to avoid the mistakes I’ve made, or because you’d like even more evidence that I am an incompetent idiot.