In pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie to serve the internet, writer and recipe developer Lindsay Maitland Hunt once baked 900 cookies in three months.
“I was just so obsessed,” she says. So much so that she didn’t really question the health or wisdom of a life devoted to cookies except as it related to whether her jeans still fit. “I would just make batch after batch after batch, not really thinking about anything except, ‘Am I exercising every day?’ ”
Hunt continues to test recipes, but with a decidedly different goal. Her debut cookbook, Help Yourself (HMH, May) is written for other eaters whose brains want indulgences that their bodies can’t process—something that was beginning to concern her even during the cookie days. (A sample headline from the time: “25 Healthier Versions of Your Favorite Desserts: This means they’re basically salad, right?”)
“I was steadily accumulating a crazy grab bag of issues,” Hunt says: migraines, mental health swings, rapid weight gain, “really bad acid reflux,” and a mysterious case of hives. Finally, she saw a doctor who specialized in functional medicine. The issue, he said, was in her gut. It felt like the first time something had made sense in a while.
But, “I did what he said and it did not work,” Hunt recalls. “Being someone who loves reading and loves asking questions, I just decided to take matters in my own hands.”
While even the most gung-ho personal health advocates are unlikely to, say, implant their own lap bands, changing eating habits is an accessible fix. Hunt’s culinary training had focused on food as pleasure; could it also be medicine?
Here, PW looks at some of the latest books serving food and wellness on the same menu.
The buddy system
There are things that physicians and scientists literally cannot do for patients—once you leave the medical appointment, it’s a rare doctor who will write your grocery list, cook for you, or take you for a postprandial walk.
Failing that, Eve Mayer wants to be the next best thing. She’s not a doctor or researcher, though her coauthors, Jason Fung and Megan Ramos, are. Mayer describes her expertise and contribution to Life in the Fasting Lane (Harper Wave, Apr.) as what she wanted from medical advice: “a best friend who will tell me the least amount of work I could put into this.”
Mayer, who grew up in food-obsessed Southern Louisiana, had tried diets, surgeries, hypnosis, and addiction treatment to deal with a lifetime of obesity. When she encountered Fung’s The Obesity Code (Greystone), she was furious at her health-care providers and highly skeptical of Fung, too.
“I had never once heard about fasting,” Mayer says. “I had never once heard about low carb and how it could possibly affect hunger and the sound in my head that every moment said, ‘Eat, eat, eat.’ ”
On the strength of Fung’s research, Mayer launched into a 36-hour fast. “I really wanted to prove Dr. Fung wrong,” she says. “I had this idea in my head that if I didn’t have food for five days, I’d die. The truth is, I have tons of extra fuel on my body in the form of fat.”
Mayer didn’t die. She felt better. So she dove into an 11-day fast (“like going for a walk around the block and accidentally running a marathon,” she says, advising against it for fasting newcomers). “I was physically fine, but mentally I was livid,” she says. “I was crying because of a lifetime of prediabetes and infertility and pneumonia and 300 pounds and three bariatric surgeries.”
Mayer, whose background is in social media and digital marketing, began writing about the experience online. “I tweeted Dr. Fung, and he tweeted me back,” she says, and the conversation led to a meeting. “I asked him a very frank question, which was ‘I love your book but have you ever been fat?’ And he said no. If you haven’t been fat, I don’t think you can grasp the feeling of feeling broken when your mind keeps telling you you’re hungry and your doctor keeps saying, ‘If you’d eat less, you’d be fine.’ ”
Modern diet, modern problems
Candice Rosen, a registered nurse and the author of Forget Dieting! (Rowman & Littlefield, Mar.), says she got plenty of generic advice from physicians, but her health didn’t improve until she took charge. “I believe that you’re your primary caregiver,” she says. “Your physician is your secondary caregiver.”
Rosen began focusing on nutrition’s relationship to wellness when she created a diet for patients with polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is characterized by high blood sugar. But it wasn’t until she had a hysterectomy that she needed her own advice. The cascade of prescriptions that followed surgery included an antidepressant—not the first treatment that springs to mind for a woman who describes herself as “not walking on the sunny side of the street, but dancing.”
“I’ve been a nurse for 44 years,” Rosen says. “Physicians in the U.S. have become nothing but pharmaceutical bartenders, and people in the U.S. have been overserved for too long.”
Instead, Rosen turned to her diet protocol. The result: she lost 36 pounds, increased her bone density, and stopped having hot flashes. Her takeaway? The modern diet—and particularly the vast amounts of sugar in industrialized food—is the equivalent of putting rocket fuel into a Model T engine. It might seem like the car should go faster, but the wrong fuel only wrecks the machine.
In her book, Rosen proposes an eating plan that shares a philosophy with paleo or keto diets—specifically, that modern food is evolving beyond the human body’s ability to deal with it.
Most nutritional plans come with swaps like cauliflower pizza crusts, and Rosen’s is no different, but she is direct about the fact that her plan demands a change in lifestyle, not just some clever grocery shopping.
“My number one mantra is, ‘Your mouth is not supposed to have a party at every meal,’ ” she says. “You eat to sustain life. Now, if you want to go and have a splurge twice a month, you can, but you’re going to follow that with a liquid cleanse, which is my take on intermittent fasting.”
In Fast. Feast. Repeat. (Griffin, June), retired elementary school teacher Gin Stephens takes a slightly different tack with intermittent fasting, emphasizing benefits over discipline. After losing 80 pounds by limiting her food consumption to a particular window of hours in the day, Stephens self-published her first fasting book, Delay, Don’t Deny, in 2016; it’s sold 84,000 print copies per NPD BookScan.
Elizabeth Beier, executive editor at St. Martin’s Publishing Group, says Stephens’s devotion to becoming a lay expert on fasting “was infectious to me”—and completely genuine. “Even with your best health and diet authors, you go have a wonderful lunch,” she says. “But Gin was like, ‘You know, I’m not going to be in my feasting window,’ and I said, ‘Well, let’s go take a walk.’ ” Their walk-and-talk, complete with breaks for lemon water, was a refreshing change, Beier says, from “just sitting at a table talking.”
Stephens’s book and another of St. Martin’s forthcoming titles, Pinch of Nom (May), share a feature attractive to publishers: they were incubated online and come attached to devoted communities. (For more on Pinch of Nom, see “Chickpea Soup for the Soul.”)
“Experts will always be wanted,” Beier says. “But the corollary now is not just influencers but real people who have charisma. Those kinds of projects feel particularly collaborative, because those authors have been more entrepreneurial than some. It takes on a lot of momentum.”
Studying the studies
Sophie Egan understands entrepreneurship and collaboration: she holds multiple editorial and leadership roles at the Culinary Institute of America, which has trained more than 50,000 chefs from New York to Singapore. Those establishment credentials might make Egan look like a traditional expert in the nutritional wellness field, but How to Be a Conscious Eater (Workman, Mar.) came about because she, too, had a problem—not with her health, but with how to help others.
“It relates to the role I play in my personal life as well as professionally, of people coming to me to set the record straight,” Egan says. Thanks in part to the internet, “there’s a lot of noise, a lot of opinion-driven as opposed to fact-driven guidance. People just want to know: give me the short and sweet bottom line about what to eat.”
In writing her book, Egan didn’t abandon—or feel abandoned by—scientific literature. “I call this guide a radically practical approach to conscious eating,” she says. “It’s driven by scientific research-backed recommendations around aligning your choices with nutrition, planetary boundaries, and animal welfare.” A question about whether to eat grass-fed or pasture-raised or local beef, for instance, is met with advice to eat less beef overall, for the sake of one’s health, the planet—and future steak dinners.
Egan hunted for the points where broad swaths of the scientific and medical community have found agreement, and eliminated small studies or studies that produced miraculous effects that couldn’t be replicated. “I wanted to reassure people that there is more consensus than not,” she notes. “Most people know that fruits and vegetables are good for them.”
By seeking that common ground, Egan says, readers can balance out the social media–driven advice permeating contemporary discussions of wellness. “There’s no reason to go down a woo-woo path.”
Betsy O’Donovan is a journalist in Bellingham, Wash.
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