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You Are What You Eat - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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December 9th, 2009


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11:11 pm - You Are What You Eat
At a recent medical writers conference, I picked up a free book. Free book! How could I resist? Especially when it was about a subject I've become interested in. The book was An Apple a Day: The Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths About the Foods We Eat by Joe Schwarcz, PhD.

Because Dr. Schwarcz is a chemist, he focuses on the actual chemical substances that have effects within our bodies. The book is divided into four parts. The first and longest part deals with natural substances found in the foods we eat. The second part deals with artificial substances and genetic modifications. The third part deals with contaminants. And the fourth and shortest part—surprising, given the title—attacks spurious health and nutrition claims.

The chapters are very short, most of them only three or four pages long, and each one is written to stand alone, which leads to a lot of repetition of basic concepts and key facts. This is both annoying and effective since it reinforces ideas like the fact that we needn't worry about carcinogens in our coffee since they're in such small amounts and, besides, there are carcinogens in practically everything we eat. Over and over, Schwarcz hammers home several important points.

Eat your fruits and vegetables, for starters. He discusses specific nutrients and beneficial chemicals (lycopene, anthocyanins, carotenoids) they contain that are best ingested along with the hundreds of other chemicals the foods contain. Whole grains are also good, as are some spices like turmeric and cinnamon. Time and time again, he pooh-poohs the general practice of simply taking supplements, citing studies that showed that the supplements provided no benefit. Well, sometimes. Sometimes the supplements are beneficial in specific populations—usually in patients with a condition to begin with, not healthy patients seeking preventive medicine. Vitamin D supplements, though, are ones he recommends, since the recommended daily dose of vitamin D is much higher than one would get from diet alone.

Schwarcz backs up his recommendations with science. Although he provides interesting anecdotal data, he always follows it up with data from trials and interprets the results for the reader. He points out numerous times that claims of a substance's benefit or harm are frequently made based on results in animal trials. And in these trials, the animals are often given doses hundreds or even thousands greater than are actually found in the foods themselves, making the claims relatively meaningless. For instance, in one study, rats were fed an artificial sweetener, and they developed bladder cancer. The amount they got, however, was equivalent to a human drinking 350 diet sodas a day. He examines the amounts of various substances found in foods and compares which are better sources of vitamins and nutrients. He also points out that you only get the benefit of these nutrients if you make them a regular part of your diet. Eating an apple once every couple weeks isn't the same as eating one a day.

Dr. Schwarcz clearly has it out for self-proclaimed health gurus with questionable degrees and calls out several by name to debunk their crazy claims. He also rebukes several activist groups who crusade against foods with one substance of questionable health risk among dozens of other substances with proven health benefits. As he says frequently, there are natural "toxins" and pesticides in the fruits and vegetables we eat already, and no one seems to get up in arms about those. He does acknowledge when the issues are hazy, however. Even though he's obviously biased toward scientists and their fancy "clinical trials" and "evidence" and "data," he notes when the activists do actually have some science on their side.

The tone is somewhat lighthearted, but not consistently. Schwarcz's attempts at humor or a cute punchline frequently fall flat or seem out of place or non sequitur. That said, it's extremely readable, and he doesn't let the text get bogged down in polysyllabic words and confusing biochemistry, focusing on the high-level concepts. The chapters are of varying quality; some seemed very superficial and didn't address issues I expected to read about. I also felt that, since the chapters were meant to stand alone, there wasn't a consistent sense of structure or organization throughout.

Overall, however, it's a very good overview of the things we put in our bodies and what they do to us, what we can do to stay healthier, and what we really don't need to be worried about, sensationalistic headlines be damned. I learned a lot, and I was especially interested to read about the results of all the trials. We rarely hear about food-related trials and what the results actually mean, only what the media spews out. Even more interesting were the studies of trials, searching the aggregate data for potential health benefits or safety risks. But besides all that, you've got to love all the food history trivia! Like did you know that spinach actually has very low iron content, and the reason the creator of Popeye believed spinach was high in iron was because in the eighteen hundreds, researchers screwed up a decimal and the result was propagated for decades? And that pretty much all artificial sweeteners were discovered by accident? And that the word "canola" comes from a combination of Canada, oil, and low acid?

I haven't read any other books on nutrition, so I don't know how this one compares. I thought it was pretty good, but not as amazing and enlightening as I was hoping for from the title. It did make me think more about what I eat. Even though I obviously knew I should eat more fruits and vegetables and oats and fish and whatnot, it really helps to know why, specifically. Now I know what actual health benefits I can reap from diversifying my diet!
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: Snow Patrol - We Can Run Away Now They're All Dead and Gone

(32 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 07:27 am (UTC)
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I love when my posts spur people to action!
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From:being_fulfilled
Date:December 10th, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)
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And that the word "canola" comes from a combination of Canada, oil, and low acid?

And canola was initially also a trademarked name! I think that part of the decision in naming it was to increase its "friendliness" in getting away from the word "rape" (as in turnip) in its name (rapeseed).

"The negative associations due to the homophone "rape" resulted in creation of the more marketing-friendly name "Canola". The change in name also serves to distinguish it from regular rapeseed oil, which has much higher erucic acid content."

I'm not sure when the change happened, but I remember it being called rapeseed when I was a kid (we grew canola on the family farm). According to wikipedia, it was 1974, so yeah, when I was a kid, it was still new enough that not everyone called it by the new name.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 08:36 am (UTC)
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I think that part of the decision in naming it was to increase its "friendliness" in getting away from the word "rape" (as in turnip) in its name (rapeseed).
Yep, that was clearly a factor. I think I've seen the word "rapeseed" in some ingredient labels, though, so people still use it. I didn't know it was the same thing as canola, though.
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From:robyn_migratori
Date:December 10th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
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Like did you know that spinach actually has very low iron content, and the reason the creator of Popeye believed spinach was high in iron was because in the eighteen hundreds, researched screwed up a decimal and the result was propagated for decades?

Haaa! How delightful.

And that pretty much all artificial sweeteners were discovered by accident?

This one I remember from organic chemistry.

And that the word "canola" comes from a combination of Canada, oil, and low acid?

All Canadians know that!

As he says frequently, there are natural "toxins" and pesticides in the fruits and vegetables we eat already, and no one seems to get up in arms about those.

Huh, my boyfriend, just tonight, got into an argument with one of our classmates (a very anti-processed foods girl) about this very thing. I wonder now, was this book recently pimped or quoted somewhere?

Your review isn't exactly glowing, but it sounds interesting and light, so I'll check the liberry next time I'm there (to return the copy of Twinkie, Deconstructed I have checked out. Thanks!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 08:44 am (UTC)
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Haaa! How delightful.
Isn't that awesome?

This one I remember from organic chemistry.
I couldn't believe Sweet'N Low came from tobacco residue. Dude was smoking in the lab, licked his lips, and was all, "Hm, this is sweet."

All Canadians know that!
I'll bet you do!

Huh, my boyfriend, just tonight, got into an argument with one of our classmates (a very anti-processed foods girl) about this very thing. I wonder now, was this book recently pimped or quoted somewhere?
I don't know. I just picked it up at the conference, never having heard of it. The book is also anti-processed foods in that, duh, processed foods aren't good for you in comparison to actual foods, but the author does point out "harmful" substances that occur naturally in higher concentrations in fruits and vegetables than they do in the foods people complain about. And he also notes that a lot of additives and such are chemically identical to their natural counterparts, so there's no good reason to be afraid of them since they behave exactly the same way in your body as they do if you encounter them in real food.

Your review isn't exactly glowing, but it sounds interesting and light
It is! I was expecting more from the book than I got, and I can't really put my finger on what's missing, besides the fact that the writing style sometimes bugged me. But I'm definitely glad I read it.

Twinkie, Deconstructed
Ha, that sounds like a fun book to read too! There are a lot of food books out there, huh.
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From:chrryblssmninja
Date:December 10th, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the review. Sounds like something I might pick up, especially for what he says about toxins and food-related trials.

And that the word "canola" comes from a combination of Canada, oil, and low acid?
whoa. Mind blown.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
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Hm, how does that one work? The book didn't mention that one.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
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Spinach is still good for you! Just not high in iron!
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From:zimshan
Date:December 10th, 2009 02:28 pm (UTC)
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Ohhhhh, you are reaching a subject very near and dear to my heart, Sunil!! Food chemistry, yo, I could talk about it for hourssssss. And yea, I'd say this book PROBABLY wasn't the BEST nutrition book in the world. But maybe a good introduction? Nutrition is weird, because there are some scientists out there that boil it down and make it this simple thing and underestimate its importance to grievous levels. Then there's those who know it's important yet still boil down into such crap it sounds meaningless. Or are just skeptical about almost everything. There's especially this U.S. syndrome, where it doesn't matter if there are tens of thousands of studies done on a specific chemical that consistently conclude medicinal properties, if it wasn't done in the U.S., it's not to be trusted. Because you know, France and Germany, what do they know about science? *facepalm*

I learned a lot, and I was especially interested to read about the results of all the trials. We rarely hear about food-related trials and what the results actually mean, only what the media spews out. Even more interesting were the studies of trials, searching the aggregate data for potential health benefits or safety risks.
The fact that he mentioned this, at least makes it more informed than some.

It's not just some spices that are good for you! Almost all known spices have been found to contain medicinal properties! Friggin GINGER has a higher potency as a antitussive than codeine for friggin sakes! But you wouldn't hear that from most people. And sure, spinach iron fallacy is true but it is good for other things!! Highhhhhh carotenoid count which is good for a bunch of things. Bet that book didn't tell you people have gotten over cancer completely forgoing the chemo route just by changing their diets, did it?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
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There's especially this U.S. syndrome, where it doesn't matter if there are tens of thousands of studies done on a specific chemical that consistently conclude medicinal properties, if it wasn't done in the U.S., it's not to be trusted. Because you know, France and Germany, what do they know about science?
Oh man, he jokes about that all the time! Like there are certain substances that are approved all over the world, but not in the U.S., and the approvals are based on the exact same trials, so what's up with that?? He definitely doesn't have U.S. syndrome.

The fact that he mentioned this, at least makes it more informed than some.
Yeah, I felt like I was in good hands. Especially because a lot of those aggregate studies ended up finding no correlation at all, despite individual trial results that showed a notable benefit or risk.

Friggin GINGER has a higher potency as a antitussive than codeine for friggin sakes!
Curcumin—the chemical of interest in turmeric—had a higher anticancer effect than frickin' paclitaxel.

And sure, spinach iron fallacy is true but it is good for other things!! Highhhhhh carotenoid count which is good for a bunch of things.
Oh yeah, he still recommends spinach, just not for iron!

Bet that book didn't tell you people have gotten over cancer completely forgoing the chemo route just by changing their diets, did it?
Actually, it did. Well, it referred to one guy who did, and then the cancer came back and killed him. But it did mention cancer studies all the time, usually about foods that reduced the risk of cancer.

I think you should check out this book! It sounds like he'd be up your alley.
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From:erinkayehashet
Date:December 10th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
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That sounds really interesting. There are tons of books on nutrition out there, but it sounds like this guy knows his stuff.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I really appreciated that he always backed up everything with actual trial data and wasn't afraid to go ahead and say that, you know what, there's a lot of conflicting data out there, and there's nothing magical about these ingredients.
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From:punzerel
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)
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YAY SCIENCE! Joe Schwarcz is occasionally annoying, but I generally agree with his overall arguments - I do know some people who totally hate him, though. (The reason the chapters are short and annoyingly repetitive is probably that they come from his weekly columns in the Montreal Gazette, and probably also his radio show too.)

I remember the column on turmeric. Awesome, because we use it a lot! We have pretty Schwarcz-approved diets in my house, so we always feel vindicated by his columns.

And being Canadian, I totally knew that about canola.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Joe Schwarcz is occasionally annoying, but I generally agree with his overall arguments - I do know some people who totally hate him, though.
Those people are weirdos.

(The reason the chapters are short and annoyingly repetitive is probably that they come from his weekly columns in the Montreal Gazette, and probably also his radio show too.)
That totally makes sense, ha! Also explains why there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what was included. There's a whole chapter on blueberries but nothing on strawberries, raspberries, or various other berries? I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT STRAWBERRIES. I LIKE STRAWBERRIES.

I remember the column on turmeric. Awesome, because we use it a lot! We have pretty Schwarcz-approved diets in my house, so we always feel vindicated by his columns.
Neat! Yeah, I only discovered he was Canadian last night and wondered whether any of you Canadians were familiar with him.
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From:noradeirdre
Date:December 11th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
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"We rarely hear about food-related trials and what the results actually mean, only what the media spews out."

This is also the case with "obesity studies." (see Paul Campos' book "The Obesity Myth")

Science has many agendas that are not for the sake of knowledge, and it's important to keep that in mind regarding ALL science-based public policy debate.

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