This is one of my favorite genres of book: the self-help guide. I devour pretty much everything on this subject. If an article is about how to eat right and live longer, I read it. I keep up to date on all the latest findings and have incorporated much of what I read into my own life already. So my bar was pretty low. I figured if I learned one thing new from this book, it would be worth it. And if it wasn’t that good, well, it was only 4 hours (I got the audiobook, narrated by the author.)
Pros: This book is short, with plenty of white space and a simple vocabulary. It’s really more like a well-padded long article than a book. It did remind me of things I already knew about healthy living.
Cons: I learned nothing new in this book, and felt irritated/insulted for most of it.
Okay, I take that first part back. I also learned that Rath is, according to his bio, a bestselling author with enough experience in consumer affairs, health, science, and in writing, that there’s no good reason why this book couldn’t have been good. Heck, if his bio is true, it should have been excellent. Instead, it sounds like one of those cheery light-on-content health updates your insurance company sends to you, the ones that sound like they were written for the dumbest person in the company, where even if you’re really, really bored and already caught up on Dilbert, it’s not worth getting to the end.
That alone shouldn’t have merited a one-star rating. But this is my own subjective review, and I’m giving it one star because this book irritated/bored/pissed me off from the very beginning. Even the voice irriatated me. Rath narrated it himself, and he has a kind of raspy, nasal voice. Usually I get used to the narrator a few hours in, and it doesn’t bother me, but this bothered me all the way through.
I’ve been thinking hard about what irked me about this book. I think the fact that I learned nothing new pissed me off the most. Thanks for wasting my time. No, maybe it was the didactic viewpoint. Rath seems to be dividing the world into “good” and “evil” like some modern day Calvinist preacher whose religion is health rather than Christianity. He’s not content with improving himself, he wants to also stamp out the sin and depredation he sees in this wicked flawed world of ours. I never liked pulpit-pounding spittle frothing exhortations to change. Rath suggests that it’s not good to let other people eat unhealthy food too, and that if you get candy or sweets as a gift, throw them away instead of letting others be tempted. OMG. Are you kidding me? Give me those donuts if you’re so horrified of them. Don’t pretend your way is the only way. Let other people live their own lives, even if that includes candy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that maybe Rath’s house is not the most popular one on the block when it comes to trick-or-treating.
The whole book is in the imperative. Do this, don’t do that. Yes, yes, it’s a self-help book, and that’s what self-help books do, but I love self-help books and I hated this one.
Also, and I understand this is a personal quirk that not everyone shares, but when you say “studies show” I like to know which studies, so I can judge for myself the veracity of the information. Rath doesn’t presume his reader wants to be bothered with science. He would say, for example “studies show people eat more off larger plates” instead of saying, “Brian Wasnik in his book MINDLESS EATING, talks about how his research shows people eat more off larger plates.” I strongly prefer non-fiction that presents research done by the author, or second best is research that’s done by someone the author knows, that’s not been published outside of scientific journals. Research and findings that were published ten years ago in a book that anyone with half an interest in this field has already read is far, far less valuable to me.
If you took a shot of whisky every time Rath said “studies show” you’d be black-out drunk by the end of the third chapter. But these studies, as they are presented, are full of holes. For example, his studies show that sugar helps cancer cells grow, therefore sugar is terrible for you. You know what else helps cancer cells grow? Iron. Therefore, get zero iron and you’ll have less cancer. Course, you’ll also be anemic, but that’s not going to be talked about. Eating vegetables, Rath posits, is the best way to prevent cancer. Not really. The best way to prevent cancer is to die young of other causes, but no one wants to hear that.
Rath organizes his information into short chapters with teaser headlines like “drive yourself to divorce”. I did like the chapter headlines, but the chapter organization was done in a way that didn’t make much sense to me. I would have thought to do one section on all the sleep studies, one section on exercise, and one section on diet. But each chapter has a random selection of advice. Eat more berries, don’t use snooze, and run every morning. Next chapter would be something like avoid a long commute, drink lots of water, and get lots of fish. At the end of the chapter, he’d have a recap, which is a good way of padding a scarce amount of material to make it seem like a book’s worth, but not a good way of making your readers feel as though you have a lot of respect for their intelligence.
I can’t even say that his writing style was as creative as it needed to be. He talks about how protein is a better bet than carbs, and suggests that plant-based proteins are the best of all. Then he offers these suggestions: “fish, walnuts, salmon, and nuts and seeds.” Whaaa? That’s not useful advice, and fish aren’t plants. How about “make a pot of beans with rice for breakfast, and serve yourself out some each morning.” or “spread hummus on your morning toast instead of jam.”
His advice is often seriously impractical. For example, Rath suggests for a breakfast having an egg-white omelette with three or four different kinds of vegetables. Do you have an extra 30-40 minutes to cook yourself breakfast in the morning, including separating and throwing away the best part of the egg? I know I don’t, not to mention the fact that my hens worked hard to make that egg for me, and it’s downright disrespectful to throw half of it away.
And that’s another problem with some of these findings. Studies show that people who eat more salmon and blueberries live longer and are overall healthier than people who do not. Studies may also show that people who eat more salmon and blueberries are more likely to send their kids to private college and spend a week in Vermont skiing every year. Most of his dietary changes are not feasible to people who do not have a high income. Fresh vegetables are expensive. Fish is expensive. Berries are expensive. And the time to buy and cook these things and eat them slowly as he recommends is in and of itself a luxury. Poverty is the elephant in the room here. Poverty causes poor health, and poverty also causes people to eat shelf-stable, processed carb foods. I simply don’t trust findings that don’t take that into account.
I remember being told that low-fat was healthy, and I remember the Atkins diet, and I remember all the other fads that have come and gone. I can tell you where Rath hits on the latest health fashions. Fish good. Vegetables good. Wheat bad. Fat okay, but fried food is bad. Grilled food is also bad (that’s a rare one.) Raw food is better. All the trendy foods are great: acai berries, broccoli, blueberries, fatty fish (but no mercury!) Green tea, of course, is the tops, as is coffee, which you should have as much as you want of, but no sugar. Sugar is poison, don’t you know, (even though our body converts almost everything we eat into sugar.) As for sleep, more is better, but probably not more than 9 hours a night. You’re not exercising enough. You should exercise in the morning, and also at night, and also every twenty minutes. Don’t sit. Sitting is terrible. Sitting causes death. Actually, you should be moving constantly, and probably grazing on leaves and grass like some ungulate.
Be less stressed, as if that’s possible, and lose weight (nevermind that weight loss attempts have a 90% failure rate). He suggests that all you need to lose weight is give up an hour of television watching for an hour of sleep, as if all us people with a BMI in the overweight category watch several hours of TV a day and don’t sleep enough. Television is horrible for you, because it’s sitting, and because it’s seen as the kind of thing done by the class of people who can’t afford salmon and fresh fruit every day. Reading is also sitting, but no one rails against how your butt gets bigger if you’re a little too fond of spending Sunday afternoons with Dostoevsky. It’s illogical, but this isn’t a book for skeptics who want to look closely at what’s being presented as fact.
Some of his suggestions I will outright call bullshit. Dried fruit is bad, he says. What? Raisins are bad, grapes are good? I find that hard to believe. A raisin is just the grape with the water taken out. No, your salad is not poison because of the raisins in it.
I guess this book wasn’t a complete loss, as it did make me think more about eating more vegetables. It mostly just pissed me off though. I don’t like being talked down to. Telling me to choose “healthy snacks” makes me think of pre-school children with their apple slices and 100% juice boxes and celery and peanut butter. I don’t like weak arguments that just happen to align with the latest fads posited by an author who comes off as smug and “healthier than thou.” It does not inspire me to re-read it for more information, or change my life, which is already pretty much maxed out with what I am willing to do for maintenance. Bodies need maintenance, just as houses do, but sometimes you just want to live and enjoy it. Life is for living, and living means balancing pleasure and good maintenance. Sure, you may live longer if you never eat bacon, but if you never eat bacon, what’s the point?