Food book reviews

Here are food book reviews of some of the most thought-provoking books on food and nutrition that I’ve come across. Unless you’re already a fan of food books, culinary history books, or alternative nutrition reviews, you might be surprised by just how mind blowing what’s inside them can be.

All these books and authors have been important to me on the delicious discovery trip that is my life with food. It’s my privilege to share them with you.

21 Life Lessons From Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb: How the Healthy Low-Carb Lifestyle Changed Everything I Thought I Knew
Jimmy Moore
BookSurge Publishing, 2009

I’ve been listening to Jimmy Moore’s podcasts and following his blogs and other web resources for several years now. So I thought I knew everything he had to say. I read this book, and learned otherwise.

As the title suggests, this book tracks the individual journey of one man as he discovers and follows a nutritional path that begins as a weight-loss diet and unexpectedly becomes much more.

The structure of the book mirrors Jimmy’s journey in some ways. It begins with shorter chapters that reveal the fundamentals of low-carb nutrition and skewer misconceptions entrenched in popular ideas about health — like the commonly accepted significance of cholesterol test results, to name just one.

It progresses to prodigious chapters that review an astonishing breadth of scientific research and debate, revealing connections between carb consumption and cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, autism and more. These portions could comprise a book in their own right. In fact, it’s worth buying “21 Life Lessons” simply for this remarkable compendium of information.

The reference to “everything” in the title may be technically an overstatement — but not by all that much.

Along the way we meet the scientists and doctors whom Jimmy has gotten to know during his journey. They provide quotes at the chapter heads, they’re players in the scientific frontline debates he reports, and, through his podcast show and other efforts in publicizing and reporting on low-carb science, they become his friends and acquaintances. The reader feels this connection, too.

From there the story moves to reports from the trenches of the blogosphere, as Jimmy is hoodwinked by, and eventually repudiates, a secretly obese huckster shilling what turns out to be a dangerous starvation diet (Kimkins) that isn’t just almost devoid of carbs — it’s virtually devoid of FOOD, period. He runs afoul of certain militant vegetarians and vegans who try to shut down his podcast. He draws fire from all sorts of Internet readers — lay readers and scientists alike — who disagree with him for all sorts of reasons. In these portions, “21 Life Lessons” is a story about the tribulations of a conspicuous public life in the 21st century.

But it’s the telling of the final life lesson that is the most moving. Here we return to the internal world, continuing in the heart-on-sleeve fashion — often just short, perhaps, of way too folksy — familiar to the reader by now.

And so we are disarmed by the time we come to learn what it was like to live through the shattering of his family when he was a small child, about the extreme emotional and physical abuses he suffered as a youth, about his special connection with his brother Kevin.

Here the frank tone, the unstudied vulnerability, is exactly right.

By the time we see Kevin spiral downward into disease and, ultimately, death, we have been drawn deeply into the most intimate of personal, painful spaces.

It’s the hero’s journey with a tragic twist. The classic template is that the seeker leaves home, has adventures, learns lessons, and returns to save the day.

By this point in the book, we’ve soared with Jimmy as he transformed himself from a 410-pound, chronically unhealthy mass of symptoms into a walking advertisement of the healing potential of healthy living. The sense of co-traveling is intense as he tells of meeting leading writers, doctors, researchers, filmmakers, and health and fitness professionals who have witnessed similar transformations in others. We know by now that Jimmy hears from thousands of people who say he’s been instrumental in their own healing journey.

Yet, Jimmy is unable to rescue his beloved brother.

Although the final lesson is stated as “The early death of a brother or loved one may not be prevented,” it might be rephrased, “Caring about someone can’t make them hear you, if they don’t want to change” — with the corollary that you can’t let that discourage you from continuing to help those who do.

And learning that lesson — more than losing 180 pounds, more than gaining health, celebrity and a new career — is, I think, the central personal triumph in this book.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Jared Diamond
W. W. Norton & Company, 1997 — 2005

This is not really a food book. But it influenced the way I look at food.

A big influence on my initial interest in low-carb theory and practice came from this book, in which author Jared Diamond suggests that the invention of agriculture might have been the worst mistake in human history.

Diamond describes in exquisite detail the adoption of starch foods by various human groups around the planet, and the vast effects of this on the human story. In fact, the book could have been titled “Guns, Germs, Grains and Steel.”

When I read Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution (DANDR) in October 2001, two years later, I instantly recognized how our current predicaments fit perfectly into the story thread of GGS. I remember thinking, of course! Carbohydrate! The one macronutrient we humans couldn’t have based our diets on before we developed agriculture.

Therefore, the optimal human diet couldn’t possibly be one based around whole grains.

Grains have only been in the human diet in any quantity for maybe ten thousand years, and homo sapiens has been the species it is as we know it for over ten times longer than that.

Whenever I hear or read anyone saying that we require whole grains for health, that we need carbohydrate, that we need to base our diets on grains, that it should be the one food we eat more servings of each day than any other, I find myself thinking: No way. No way. There is no historical way that could possibly be true.

I highly recommend this fascinating book to anyone seeking a non-nutrition oriented companion to Good Calories, Bad Calories, Paleo nutrition book, or similar. Also check out the 2005 National Geographic miniseries of the same title: Guns, Germs, and Steel

More about the book:

By the Renaissance, societies around the world had developed widely varying degrees of technology. Why? Given the equality of humans, the causes must be environmental, says evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond explores those causes. These are the factors that make technology happen— as well as farming, writing, class structure, war, and even certain deadly diseases — for better or worse.

Diamond uses the 1532 clash between the Spanish and Inca, the mightiest empires of their respective continents, as a touchstone event: history’s most dramatic demonstration of how various botanical, zoological, geological, and geographical elements have shaped human societies.

In one afternoon, 168 Spaniards defeated 80,000 Inca warriors, capturing their monarch and effectively crushing their empire. The Spanish cavalry, with their steel armor and blades, trounced the Incan foot soldiers, who wore quilted armor and wielded bronze clubs. Smallpox, already raging through the Americas, had led to political instability among the Incas, and helped seal their defeat.

Why did Europeans have this conquistadorial edge? Why didn’t Iron Age Incas sail to Europe and destroy a Bronze Age Spain? Why didn’t Native Americans’ germs kill 95% of the population of Europe, instead of the other way around?

Cataloging our planet’s uneven distribution of high-protein grains and beans, easily-domesticated large mammals, minerals, mountain ranges, and more, Diamond shows how environmental happenstance shaped the trajectories of these and other societies. His accounts include every pocket of human habitation, from Australia and the larger continents to the remarkably diverse islands of the Austronesian expansion.

Hailed for its non-racist theories explaining the diverse paths taken by various human groups over the last 13,000 years,Guns, Germs, and Steel is a gripping, lively read. Diamond sorts out a myriad of layers of cause and effect with thoroughness and mesmerizing narrative.

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
Gary Taubes
Borzoi Books, Knopf, 2010

I’m just so excited that this book is out. I’ve been a fan of award-winning science journalist Gary Taubes for years. This is not his first book on this topic, but — writing about a month after this book was released in December 2010 — it looks to be shaping up as a major breakthrough in public awareness. His alternative hypothesis about getting fat flies right in the face of mainstream wisdom, yet it scored the cover — the cover! — of no less mainstream a publication that Reader’s Digest. The magazine I regularly scream at the health advice of as I turn the pages.

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