The constant barrage of ways to live a healthy life led A.J. Jacobs on a two-year quest to become the “healthiest man alive.” While he may not have achieved his goal, he was able to document his experiences in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. Jacobs is a very entertaining writer and one not afraid to expose his fears and attempts at perfection to his readers. I was drawn to this book by my view of the health-improvement movement and having read his previous attempt to understand American religious practice in The Year of Living Biblically. In reading his introduction, I was impressed with the guidelines he sets for himself. He promises to be on the lookout for “quackery.” To that effect he states that he plans to make science his guide further stating that “Each study needs to be weighed against the mountain of existing data. I want to focus on the meta-analyses.”
Each chapter provides a monthly update on his quest. Chapters focus on a single topic each month including the feet, the heart, the lungs, the nervous system, and the nose. The stomach is the only organ that makes its appearance three times. Despite his lofty goals as stated in the Prologue, he seems to abandon the science rather quickly. Dr. Oz becomes his go-to guy on nutrition as well as on other topics. In The Year of Living Biblically, he convenes a panel of authoritative sources to keep him from going too far astray theologically. Here he occasionally consults representatives of certain organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Lung Association, the Mayo Clinic and the Sleep Disorders Institute, but he does not seem to be able to find authoritative groups for other areas. He is reasonably good at exposing far-out ideas without being nasty about it, but he is not as discerning about health as he was about religion.
With respect to food he seems to struggle in his three chapters on the stomach. He is heavily influenced by Michael Pollan declaring that “We can all agree on we need to eat more whole foods, not processed foods.” He quotes Pollan that “Nutrition science, in my view, is sort of where surgery was in the year 1650.” Apparently, the discovery of the importance of vitamins, minerals and protein or the work of Banting and Best on diabetes are the equivalent of using leeches to bleed sick patients. His perspective also ignores the fortification of grains among many other nutritional advances in the past century as still primitive exhibits of modern nutritional science. Marion Nestle is the only nutritionist he consults and only as she disparages processed foods, particularly of the organic variety, displayed on the middle aisles of the nearest Whole Foods Market. He concludes that we have two ways to go in designing healthy diets: Colin Campbell’s extreme vegan diet as described in The China Study or Gary Taubes’s extreme avoid-all-the-sugar-you-can diet.
To that end, he adopts a plant-based diet on which he loses 12.5 pounds over two years, most of which disappear in the first six months. After some fits and starts, Jacobs basically adopts a modified Mediterranean diet with low sugar consumption. He does not seem to realize that his canola oil, flaxseed oil, fat-free Greek yogurt, Dr. Praeger’s spinach pancake, and red wine are processed ingredients or foods. His diet is restricted to a very small number of foods which he concedes is probably not a healthy practice. He prefers organic foods despite Marion Nestle’s cautions against putting too much faith in the term. The author adopts a raw foods diet for two weeks and promptly loses four pounds. He also tries a juice cleanse and is not impressed. His diet is not bad except for the lack of variety, but it could have been improved if he had consulted with a dietitian or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It is hard to believe that he did not lose more weight on his rather Spartan diet and his elevated level of exercise. I suppose that I should not be too critical of his effort and merely write it off as a novice trying to cope with the misinformation we face daily.
And yet, I am not pleased that he failed to let science guide him with respect to his diet. Despite his promise to use meta-analyses, he puts too much faith on single studies. The only reference to a meta-analysis is about the effect of ginseng on libido. Why this failure matters is that the single studies that make it into public and social media tend to be sensational and go against scientific consensus. Thus, in writing In Defense of Processed Food, I sought out meta-analyses whenever possible prior to making definitive statements and relied on review articles in the absence of meta-analyses. As a result, I moderated some of my statements based on the preponderance of scientific evidence. There were times when I came to a very different point of view based on cogent reviews. The author of Drop Dead Healthy did not seem to abandon his preconceived ideas.
Jacobs leaves me wishing that he had done a little more homework and sought answers to some critical questions. Why didn’t he consult with a dietitian? Why didn’t he contact someone at the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics? Is nutrition science really stuck in the 17th Century as Michael Pollan suggests? To his credit, the author did talk to a representative from the American Council on Science and Health, but he viewed the organization skeptically, probably because it is funded by industry. He also mentioned two books in his “quest for the perfect diet:” Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink and Health Food Junkies by Steven Bratman. Unfortunately he seemed to take Wansink’s push for portion control to extreme levels turning himself into a borderline orthorexic as described by Bratman when he eats alone to avoid disrupting the meals of friends and family.
I agree with the author’s major message that we are bombarded with so much information it is difficult to sort it all out. Along the way he exposes some of the way-out practices like juicing and detoxing that make little nutritional sense. He also shows us that there are authoritative sources on diet and health that can be followed to improve our wellbeing. Unfortunately, Jacobs fails to use authoritative sources for food and nutrition. I confess to being disappointed in the book, perhaps due to the unrealistic expectations that I developed when reading the author’s earlier work. Has the American foodscape become so messed over today due to the misinformation provided by the food pundits and advertising from Big Food that it is beyond repair? It may be that valid information on the role of diet in maintaining health and wellness has become inaccessible to mainstream America. In the next two weeks look for some alternate approaches to diet and health on this site.
Next week: A rational plant-based diet