Why Quick-fix Diet Books Don’t Cut It Anymore

In a clever and thought-provoking riff on Anna Karenina’s opening line, Daniel Lieberman – evolutionary biologist and bestselling author of The Story of the Human Body – said that all healthy bodies are alike while each unhealthy body is unhealthy in a different way. Lieberman’s instant bestseller captures a new trend in health books.

It seems that the old battle of the bestsellers – with often diametrically opposed “how to” programs topping the list – is changing. Quick-fix diet books are being displaced by narrative books that question the very science on which these advice books are based.

Part of the urgency may be in response to the widening cloud of metabolic syndrome, a medical crisis at the core of linked epidemics that include obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. The rise in these and attendant chronic diseases that jeopardize our health, emotional well-being, and financial stability has led researchers to reconsider the foundational principles of nutritional science.

The rest of us are left wondering: why, despite all the studies, evidence, and prevailing wisdom, are we succumbing to new threats such as neurological dysfunction and autoimmune diseases? Readers weary of the “diet wars” are voting with their wallets in choosing these books.

It’s no accident that it’s been several years since a multimillion-copy bestseller like South Beach Diet, Atkins, and You series has dominated the top slots on the advice column. Readers’ curiosity for what science actually has to say, the longing for more comprehensive prevention methods, and the search for long-term life changing solutions – as opposed to quick fixes – is evident in the wonkier type of literature now on the bestseller lists.

Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body offers some startling insights about the mismatch between our body’s evolutionary design – based on millennia of eating and reproduction habits – and the unanticipated current rebellion of our immune system.

Another book, just under the bestseller radar, John Durant’s The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, draws on some elements of Lieberman’s Harvard research and offers an incisive and often witty argument for neglected or forgotten ideas about food, mental sharpness, and our natural resistance to disease. Durant’s passion and conviction has spawned hoards of disciples.

I don’t know if I am willing to let my kids run barefoot through Central Park with the Paleo crowd, but count me in on the detoxifying pleasures of the Turkish hamam and the healing powers of uninterrupted sleep.

In contrast to The Paleo Manifesto’s gusto, Grain Brain by David Perlmutter and Kristin Loberg is a truly terrifying if not compulsively readable instant bestseller that made me drop my strawberry scone full of steaming goodness (a special treat I was so thoroughly enjoying) when I learned that grain will not just make me fat, it will also fry my already fragile neural networks.

And then there is the forthcoming The Calorie Myth: How to Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight, and Live Better by Jonathan Bailor, who is, interestingly, not a scientist at all but a senior program manager at Microsoft who devoted ten years of his life to digesting all the available scientific evidence on what makes us fat and sick in order to discover how to reverse the trend with a dose of fact and common sense.

Reading these books side-by-side suggests that the true demon we have to wrestle with is sugar and insulin resistance it creates. This is the root of our growing health crisis.

This new shift in the literature is finally making it clear that the “eat less and exercise more” paradigm is not only a misguided solution to the obesity epidemic, but its dubious scientific underpinnings have perhaps even contributed to making matters worse.

There is clearly a deep desire for a different kind of wisdom to replace the USDA nutritional guidelines that have shaped our attitudes, habits, and policy over the last 50 years and fueled the endless parade of contradictory “diet wars” solutions. It’s time to put a few sacred cows to pasture.

For now, I am off to next week’s regimen of yoga, Zumba, farmer’s markets and carb/sugar rationing. Having lost all hope of losing weight following established advice, I am now working hard not to gain more.


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