Assorted books about food or pandemics for your reading pleasure

I love to read books. My mother taught me to love them. We had no public library in our small town on the Canadian Prairies. Christmas came every month when we opened a box of books from the University of Manitoba library. Books deliver a broader perspective than a blog, news story, or even a scientific journal article. If there is substance in a book, it will become evident. If not, the words become repetitious, and they lose their impact. I am a heavy reader as I generally have four or five going at a time. Below are some short reviews of books about food or pandemics that caught my attention.

Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America presents a very different view of intuitive eating than found in Anti-Diet or Intuitive Eating. Virginia Sole-Smith outlines the challenges she faces when her daughter refuses to eat due to medical trauma. The author’s personal journey before this crisis include a love of processed food. Later, she rejects all commercial foods and adopts restrictive diets. Eventually, she embraces a more intuitive approach to eating. The author’s experiences with her daughter lead her to stop following rules and become more instinctive. She now counsels others to be less obsessed with their food and to view it with a sense of pleasure rather than a sense of dread. Sole-Smith travels through the paths of clean eating to comfort foods to food fears to eating while black. She emphasizes that strict adherence to a diet for a specific medical condition can lead to a pattern of disordered eating. This idea resonates with my experiences with diets.

Food and Nutrition: What Everyone Needs to Know by P.K. Newby is part of a very interesting series of books that spells out complex topics from a scientific perspective. I was familiar with Newby’s work in the past and not that impressed. Her writings and website promote the diet culture that intuitive eating rejects. She blames our “chronic disease pandemic” on lifestyle and diet. Then she proceeds to single out ultra-processed foods as the ones that are the unhealthiest. I braced for an onslaught on Big Food and Big Ag. I was pleasantly surprised. She does not seem to follow through, subtly suggesting that processed foods are not as bad as described.

I did not see specific guidelines for what makes up a healthy diet or lifestyle to help prevent chronic diseases.  Newby even has some nice things to say about processors and the foods they manufacture later on in the book. The book also has an extensive treatment of sustainability. The author believes that GMOs will be part of the long-term solution to feeding the world. To my surprise, it turned out to be an impressive book. I was pleased that much of what I learned about nutrition in the 70s still seems to be applicable. I am not sure that Newby tells us what everyone needs to know on the topic, but I recommend the book for an easy-to-read description of food and nutrition. 

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. What would happen if everyone went on the same diet—let’s say paleo or vegan? We would have chaos that would be much worse than the run on paper products we experienced this past March and April. There would be shortages of certain items like avocadoes or kale and surpluses of foods like breads and meat or eggs. Think what lines would form at supermarkets and how much food wasted would accumulate before supply chains aligned with consumer demand. Come to think of it, similar problems would result if everyone shifted to a plant-based diet as recommended by so many writers. This nerdy but enjoyable book on statistics asks and answers similar questions. It further delves into the implications these decisions have on human behavior. Actually, only one chapter addresses food issues. Other chapters include information on job hunting, obtaining credit, and criminal justice.   

Weapons of Math Destruction describes the insidious role that algorithms play in our lives. They can work in our favor or exclude us unfairly all in the name of objectivity. One crucial point illustrated many times throughout the book is the use of proxies to replace what analysts really want to measure and the destructive cycle that can result. For example, managers use BMI as a proxy for health and in making decisions in hiring, college admissions, and health insurance. As noted in Intuitive Eating programs thinness does not guarantee health and fatness is not necessarily a proxy for poor health. All too frequently the presence of food additives is being used as a proxy for unhealthy foods.   

enticing salad base with veggie sticks, lettuce leaves and a small sandwich in the back
A delicious vegan salad. What would happen to the US food supply if everyone decided overnight to adopt a vegan diet? Photo by Erica Kenney.

Food for thought. The three books with relevance to food defy common generalization. Each book touched my interest in processed food, but none rose to the level of an in-depth review on this site. Many of us deal with food issues, and it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the effects of diet culture in our society. There does appear to be some hope however in viewing food and nutrition through a wide lens rather than a narrow focus that tends to obscure those issues. Finally, a segment of the population is pushing a standard American diet that restricts the type and quantity of processed foods we consume. Will what passes for a food system be able to handle it? How will our supply chains keep pace?    

As Spring turned into Summer my fancy gently turned to thoughts of viruses and pandemics.

Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know is part of the same series of books mentioned above on Food and Nutrition. Nobel laureate, Peter C. Doherty, wrote Pandemics and published it in 2013. He admits that we could have a world-wide pandemic soon, but he didn’t really expect one. He was wrong. The language is technical, but readable for anyone with a science background. I came away with a better understanding of molecular biology in general and monoclonal antibodies specifically than I had when I was a working food scientist. Doherty introduces many terms and concepts that we have become familiar with since the beginning of 2020. He provides us with a better, and deeper understanding of viruses, pandemics, and the threats they pose in today’s world. I was glad that I took the opportunity to read it.

The End of October presents what we learned in pandemics in a much more palatable form. International politics, war, and heartbreaking personal stories emerge in the plot. There are some things a novel can do that straight non-fiction can’t approach. Lawrence Wright drops us into a situation that moves faster and in more frightening terms than what we are experiencing today. Let’s hope that we don’t end up in the same situation at the end of this October. The terminology that we find in Pandemics is similar, and the story seems so real.

Anyone who has spent time in Atlanta will recognize the city. CDC performs better in the novel than in the CoVID-19 era. If I had read this book last year, I would have written it off to unbelievable science fiction. So much has changed in the last few months! WARNING, this book is not appropriate for bedtime reading. The dramatic conclusion resolves the question underlying much of the book, “Was the virus initiated through natural or nefarious means?” No, you can’t just flip to the final chapter to find out, as it won’t make sense without the context of previous chapters.

Deadliest Enemy. Of the three books that enlightened me on viral pandemics, the most interesting and most riveting was this nonfiction offering from Michael Osterholm. It gave me a much better appreciation for what epidemiologists do and why they are so important. I learn that preventing deaths is not the public health agenda. Rather the mission of epidemiologists is to (1) prevent (disease transmission) and (2) minimize disease and extended disability. Osterholm has a wide background in disease outbreaks from food and other sources. He writes about viral attack by terrorism or accidental release or natural causes. The cause doesn’t matter nearly as much as our ability to defend the country. He recommends a nationally—led response, preparation ahead of time to stockpile necessary supplies and equipment, and attention to detail after the worst has passed.

It is not until one of the last chapters, however, that a fictional scenario drives the author’s points home. There are many descriptions in this account, published in 2017, that resonate with our experiences in 2020. OK, the pandemic in this scenario starts in Shanghai not Wuhan; it is a novel strain of influenza not coronavirus; the public health community and government work together rather than being at odds as is sometimes the case today; and the presumed case and death count is much higher than anything we have experienced yet.

Osterholm’s public-health plan described in final chapter warns us that viral threats can be national-security threats. Whether caused by terrorism or natural invasion, the ways to fight a pandemic are the same. We need to work together both within the country and around the world if we are to have a chance of survival. He also states that every time there is a pandemic or threat of one, a vaccine is always promised in a short amount of time and never delivered when expected. Read this book if you read only one book on pandemic-related matters.

Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak by Reid Wilson. The book follows a small outbreak in west Africa that threatens to become a world-wide epidemic. The Ebola virus is more lethal but less contagious than the coronavirus impacting us today. Wilson documents resistance from the population to follow the guidelines introduced by foreign scientists. The USA is part of the response team but does not lead it. Close cooperation between WHO, CDC, the US military, and both foreign and local agencies is credited with containing the virus. These organizations develop a clear plan of action that everyone buys into. Flexibility to revise plans as new challenges arose also contribute to the containment of the disease. Political battles erupt during an election year in the US to the plans. The pandemic is contained within a three-country region of Africa. Were we just lucky then or did we fail to learn the lessons of this previous outbreak?

Summing up. What struck me more than anything about these four books was their similarities not their differences. Somehow, they reflected our current situation even though three of the books appeared in print at least two years before our current pandemic. Words and phrases that have become household staples were either not so much part of our normal vocabulary if at all:

Sheltering at home, social distancing, PPE shortages, exceeding hospital capabilities, Dr. Fauci, bending the curve, lockdowns, contact tracing, and citizen resistance to public-health warnings are among the many previously unfamiliar phrases or concepts that were repeated in these books.

Public-health officials adopted this vocabulary and have been thinking about these possibilities for a long time before 2020. Three of the four authors anticipated a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing. All presented workable solutions should we face one. I learned that each virus has its own idiosyncrasies. Whether a pandemic is set off by natural causes or bioterrorism, the way to fight the virus remains the same. The pandemic became real to me and my wife when a member our extended family was diagnosed with CoVID-19 and hospitalized as a result. It was no longer a theoretical construct. The patient is currently at home from his stay at the hospital and is recovering nicely.

To all my readers, be careful and stay healthy,

Next week: Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us  


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