Drink eight glasses of water a day. Coconut oil is a superfood. If you want to eat like a Paleolithic human, steer clear of grains. Fact or fiction?
Debates over the veracity of health advice long predate the phrase “alternative facts.” In several forthcoming titles, physicians, food writers, and others directly address information they’ve determined is suspect or downright dangerous.
Sense and Superstition
Some authors focus on the question of who gets to relay important information about health, pointing out that celebrities, lawmakers, and bloggers, for instance, may not be the best sources.
In Bad Advice (Columbia Univ., June), which our review called “enlightening,” Paul A. Offit discusses how to combat the proliferation of misinformation, such as the now-debunked connection between vaccines and autism. Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has appeared on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show to promote awareness of politicized attacks on science, along with the dangers of pseudoscience.
“It’s been hard as a scientist to watch us devolve from scientific literacy to scientific denialism,” Offit says. He uses humor to balance some of his cautionary tales. In one example, he compares his five-year-old son, who thought Abraham Lincoln was the current president, to the people who didn’t get vaccinated for recent measles outbreaks—failing to learn from history. “There’s no better way to dismiss something than to make it a joke.”
Nina Shapiro, director of pediatric ear, nose, and throat at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and professor at David Geffen School of Medicine, puts it more bluntly: “So much of it is nonsense.” She is the author of Hype (St. Martin’s, May); her cowriter, Kristin Loberg, has collaborated on several health titles, including Grain Brain by David Perlmutter (Little, Brown, 2013), which presents outside-the-mainstream views on the dangers of gluten and which has sold 520,000 copies in hardcover.
Shapiro shines a light on cancer spas, centers that favor alternative therapies over traditional cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. She discourages patients from using alternative methods as standalone treatments. “These things are downright dangerous, and people are falling prey to a lot more health scams because of the idea that it’s gentle or alternative,” she says. “It’s genuinely hurting a lot of people.” In the book, which our review called “a feisty, fact-filled diatribe,” she also challenges commonly held beliefs such as higher SPF equaling higher protection and milk causing congestion, ear infections, and colds.
Journalist Michael Pollan is best known for his food writing, such as 2006’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and 2013’s Cooked, as well as 2001’s The Botany of Desire, which probes the relationship between humans and agriculture. For How to Change Your Mind (Penguin Press, May), he took a residency at Harvard University to study plants with psychedelic properties.
In the book, Pollan discusses the “full-on moral panic” that led to the therapeutic uses of LSD being dismissed for years; today, researchers are exploring LSD and psilocybin’s potential for treating addiction and depression. He also writes of his own psychedelic experimentation in a book our starred review called “nuanced and sophisticated.”
Everyone needs to eat, and a lot of people want to be better about it, so nutritional claims can be particularly insidious.
The recently released The Angry Chef’s Guide to Spotting Bullsh*t in the World of Food (the Experiment) by Anthony Warner, a chef and blogger in the U.K., disputes messages that proliferate in the foodie blogosphere. Warner built his social media presence by writing about blogger favorites such as kale, which, he wrote in 2016, “tastes vile and has the texture of animal fodder.” He says the book, which our review called “entertainingly acerbic and reassuringly commonsensical,” is intended for two readerships: those in the nutrition science community and individuals who are struggling with their relationship to food.
“People are tired of being made to feel guilty about what they eat,” Warner says. “All through my career, I’ve been trying to help people have a better relationship with food and not get anxious or too obsessed with micro- and macronutrients and minutiae.”
Sally Fallon Morell has been writing about nutrition since her 1995 title, Nourishing Traditions (NewTrends), coauthored with Mary G. Enig, which has sold more than 375,000 print copies since NPD BookScan began keeping records in 2001. It and subsequent books such as Nourishing Broth (2014) and Nourishing Fats (2017) promote a traditional way of eating that goes against prevailing wisdom, such as the role that saturated fat plays in heart disease.
June brings Nourishing Diets (Grand Central Life & Style), Morell’s effort at showing what true paleo and ancestral diets originally looked like. She examines foods that Australian Aborigines lived on from the late 18th century to the turn of the 20th, including grains, legumes, and the bones of small animals and birds. She also studies the diet of preindustrialized Europeans through the Victorian Age, which consisted of bone broth, organ meats, seafood, and plenty of fats and grains.
“They weren’t eating grains the way we do, like granola and Cheerios,” Morrell says. “They soaked them and soured them, like sourdough bread. When we borrow food from another culture, it’s also important to honor their method of preparation.”
Fall sees the launch of Little, Brown Spark, a health, lifestyle, psychology, and science imprint. Among its first releases is Estrogen Matters (Sept.) by Avrum Bluming, a retired medical oncologist and emeritus clinical professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, and Carol Tavris, a social psychologist. The authors defend the use of hormone replacement therapy, which fell into disfavor after 2002, when the Women’s Health Initiative published research results showing an increase in breast cancer among women taking HRT.
“The idea that you should never take hormones if you’ve had breast cancer isn’t really valid,” says Bluming, whose wife was pushed into early menopause after being treated for breast cancer. He and Tavris counter that the WHI study’s findings were exaggerated, and they offer evidence supporting the use of HRT. The book’s goal, he says, is to “give women information they can use take to their physician to discuss the pros and cons for their particular case.”
Other forthcoming titles also aim to expand women’s knowledge about their health-care options. In Like a Mother (Harper Wave, May), which our review called “an empowering resource,” journalist Angela Garbes addresses pregnant women and new mothers. “When you have a newborn, there’s a period of recovery, so you’re physically isolated from the world,” she says. “It’s important for women to know that they’re not alone; information can help.” (For more on Garbes, see “Explicit Connections.”)
In May, Rodale is releasing Women’s Health Vagina University by the editors of Women’s Health and Sheila Curry Oakes, a longtime acquisitions editor who now works as a freelance editor and ghostwriter. The book covers a wide range of topics—remedies for painful periods, different types of birth control, and ways to make sex more stimulating—addressing what the authors call commonly held misperceptions.
As the introduction explains, “This book takes on all vagina-related issues, questions, and more, digging a little deeper and expanding on the discussions to place the information in context.” That big-picture perspective is a hallmark of many of the season’s titles, whose sometimes controversial subjects are almost guaranteed to get people talking, and reading.
Corinne Lestch is a freelance writer in New York.
Below, more on the subject of health and fitness books.
Explicit Connections: PW Talks with Angela Garbes
The author of ‘Like a Mother’ discusses how culture influences ideas about women’s health.
Graphic Medicine: Health & Fitness Books 2018
Penn State University Press’s comics series has a lot more going on than the Sunday funnies.
The Wind at Their Backs: Health & Fitness Books 2018
New books offer training advice, recipes, and memoirs for runners.