Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Good Calories, Bad Calories

October 17, 2009

A few days ago I came across a reference to this book and it sounded interesting and I picked up a copy. Well, I can now say that this book may well change my life.

I’m about 40 pounds overweight. I do overeat occasionally, and don’t get as much exercise as I should, plus I have hypothyroidism, so there are several reasons for my weight problem. Nonetheless I mostly eat what I thought was healthy – breakfast is usually coffee and a bowl of granola, lunch is typically a whole grain vegetarian wrap (usually some kind of Indian lentil curry with rice), and with dinner being my main mean – a first course of salad, followed by a varied main course – pasta with pesto, salmon, or pizza are perennial favorites. Finally I tend to have a desert – typically ice cream of frozen yoghurt.  Between meals I usually have one or two energy bars (usually Bora bars) and tea or coffee.

Sounds pretty healthy, doesn’t it? Apart from the pizza and ice cream, I usually keep my saturated fat intake low (I take a statin to control cholesterol too). I favor whole grains, avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and have recently been using Agave syrup as a sweetener. I’ve thought that diets like Atkins could work but believed that while they could result in weight loss they were otherwise unhealthy. So I’ve come to accept that I’m overweight and that it would be a challenge for me to lose weight, and attributed that to genetics and my thyroid primarily.

This book gives an awful lot of credibility to Atkins and other low carb diets. In particular, it singles out fructose (and HFCS) as particularly bad. Something I did not know is that fructose actually has a low glycemic index. I dug out my copy of the wonderful On Food and Cooking and looked up Agave syrup, which I had been using because it was a “low glycemic sweetener”. And guess what – it is basically worse than sugar, as it is a mix of glucose and fructose (just like regular sugar is) but with about a 70% fructose content instead of 50%!

Good Calories Bad Calories is not a book with an agenda. It is not trying to sell you on a particular diet. It is an extremely detailed analysis of the research on nutrition, diabetes, etc, that has been done in the past 50+ years (as well as pointing out much that should have been done but hasn’t). It shows how the standard dietary advice that has been fed to US citizens since the 1970’s is wrong, and how that advice is really the misinformation that comes from a small clique of east coast academics who have dominated the journals and conferences and ridiculed all those who question their rather dubious wisdom. After reading this book you will wish some of these academics were charged with crimes against humanity, for that is what they have committed.

I can’t begin to do justice to the depth and detail of this book, but here are some of the conclusions reached:

  • neither dietary fat nor excess calories are the cause of “diseases of civilization” like obesity; instead it is carbohydrates to blame for heart disease, diabetes and possibly Alzheimer’s, via their effect on insulin secretion (insulin is the primary regulator for fat storage);
  • sugars are particularly harmful, especially glucose and fructose together;
  • exercising to burn more calories than you consume does not result in weight loss – it results in hunger – while eating excess calories doe not result in weight gain any more than it does height gain;

This is enough to make me want to go on an Atkins or similar diet, although I can’t see how I will pull that off with my wife; she considers herself vastly more knowledgeable than me in these areas (she has formal training in sports medicine and nutrition) and has railed against Atkins before – she doesn’t disagree that Atkins can result in weight loss but she believes it is very unhealthy and I would get immense resistance. But that is a different challenge. Anyone who has weight issues or suffers from diabetes should read this book and draw their own conclusions.

Zen and the Art of Happiness

October 5, 2009

The most recent book I have read is Zen And the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss.

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Prentiss is cofounder and codirector (along with his son) of a substance abuse treatment center in Malibu. Apparently he is one of the foremost Western translators of the I’Ching.

I’m not a Zen expert but I’m guessing the link between Zen and the philosophy outlined in Prentiss’ book is pretty slender. The core premise of the book is that the universe is conscious, and that it only acts in its own best interest, and that we are all part of the universe, and therefore everything that happens to us is the best possible thing that could happen. If you’re rolling your eyes at this, believe me, I did too – but the book still has some value.

At the beginning of the book Prentiss said the way to achieve lasting happiness is to be happy. This sounds hokey, but what he means is that happiness requires attentiveness to our choices in how to respond to events. This is not a radical idea; it is similar to that expressed by many others in the literature – we choose how to respond to the events that occur to us. The book has plenty of good examples illustrating this point, and I think this is where much of its value lies.

Choosing our responses requires conscious attention, which is where Prentiss draws the link with Zen. Following on from his premise, Prentiss suggests that acting as though the statement “Everything that happens to me is the best possible thing that can happen to me” is true, will change how you perceive and respond to events, and will lead to happiness. Personally, I can see how this can work in a “mind over matter” way – when I was younger I lived in a place where the ocean was very cold, but I used to swim in it, and I used to tell myself “I’m not cold” over and over, as a way of enduring the stinging pain caused by the water. That technique was quite effective for me, so I can see how Prentiss’s approach may work. But I’m not so much convinced it will lead to happiness as that it will reduce unhappiness – after all, my technique didn’t cause me to feel that the water was warm, nor did it entirely eliminate the painful cold, but it did make it bearable. Perhaps that is the most that can be asked of this kind of approach, at least at first.

The book is interspersed with inspirational quotes from Eastern literature, some of which I really enjoyed, such as this one from the Dhammapada:

Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.
But once mastered,
No one can help you as much.

At about 140 pages this is a quick read. It’s not the best book out there on the subject, but I got enough out of it that I can recommend it.