Health news: It’s everywhere. Our smartphones, televisions, friends and relatives are all standing by with updates on the latest research, though we’re often left more confused than ever. Luckily, several new books by doctors, scientists and nutrition experts take us much deeper into the science behind the headlines so we can make informed decisions about promoting and protecting our health.
Shall we start with the good news or the bad? It’s up to you in journalist Jeff Wilser’s entertaining analysis of the health claims we hear every day. Depending on which side of his lively book you start with, you’ll get The Bad News About What’s Good for You, or, alternatively, The Good News About What’s Bad for You. Wilser takes on topics from breakfast to retirement and challenges the conventional wisdom. Eat breakfast, lose weight? Maybe, Wilser finds, but most studies don’t bear that out. Think retirement will bring freedom and adventure? Possibly, but it’s also linked to higher risks of depression, divorce, stroke and heart attack. Wilser’s background as a writer for publications as diverse as The Chicago Tribune and GQ serves him well here, as he shares pop culture anecdotes and hard science side-by-side, with equal parts sincerity and humor.
TURNING THE TABLES ON FAT
Though Wilser touches on the surprising news that some fats are, in fact, good for you, physician Steven Masley and nutritionist Jonny Bowden devote their full attention to the topic in Smart Fat: Eat More Fat. Lose More Weight. Get Healthy Now. Although a generation of Americans grew up hearing that margarine was better than butter and that carbohydrates should form the foundation of our food pyramid, that wasn’t necessarily good information, Masley and Bowden write. Their astute survey of the situation delves deeply into the question of what fats really do to our bodies and how certain “smart” fats might do much more good than harm. The science here is comprehensive but never boring; the authors write clearly and elegantly, leaving space for interesting “smart fat facts.” (Did you ever stop to think that there are no vegetables in vegetable oil, only grains and seeds?) Practical plans follow the scientific explanations. A 29-day menu, meal-by-meal advice and “diet” recipes that sound like no diet you’ve ever been on—beef stew, anyone?—round out this informative and useful volume.
OUR PREHISTORIC LEGACY
Of course, we don’t have conscious control over everything that affects our health; many traits have been passed down for generations and persist even though they’re no longer useful in the modern world. That’s the fascinating concept behind Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us by Lee Goldman, head of Columbia University Medical Center. The habits that lead us to develop obesity, hypertension, mental illness, heart disease and stroke may have once been valuable to the continuation of the species. Some of Goldman’s examples seem like common sense—humans are designed to eat whatever’s in front of them, because not so long ago the next meal was far from a sure thing—but others are surprising. For instance, he makes a convincing case that our attraction to salt was once useful for staving off dehydration, but now serves mostly to raise our blood pressure. You may have never thought about how protective Paleolithic blood-clotting plays out in modern times (think heart disease and stroke), but this world-renowned cardiologist explains it plainly and suggests an important role for medicine in bridging the gap between our lifestyle and our genetic heritage.
One thing our ancestors were not prepared to deal with was the prevalence of alcohol in everyday life. It’s something most adults today have to contend with, and something that gets many of us in trouble. Here with The 30-Day Sobriety Solution: How to Cut Back or Quit Drinking in the Privacy of Your Own Home are Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and Dave Andrews, an experienced sobriety coach. Using positive psychology and systematic instructions, the authors guide readers through each of the 30 days of their program. It might be daunting to see how much work is involved in getting and staying sober, but the upbeat tone of the book, along with a generous sprinkling of quotations and cartoons, makes it seem not only doable, but enjoyable. Don’t expect “how I hit rock bottom” stories here, but rather inspirational reports from folks who have beaten alcoholism. Canfield and Andrews cover the biology behind addiction, but their focus is on empowering people to overcome it.
What we really want to know, of course, is indicated in the title of Michael Greger’s book, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, written with Gene Stone. Greger may not be able to promise actual immortality, but as a physician, author and keeper of the popular website NutritionFacts.org, he is qualified to draw connections between the foods we eat and the diseases we do or do not develop. Meticulously well documented, Greger’s guidebook provides evidence on everything from the pesticide-Parkinson’s connection to the role of antioxidants in breast cancer prevention. Gregor also offers up friendly tips, like his favorite smoothie recipe and a turmeric tutorial. Follow his advice and you may not live forever, but you’ll almost certainly live a healthier life.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.