Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Drop Dead Healthy

A.J. Jacobs has come out with a new book!  This is the man who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, and wrote a book about the experience.  The same man who went on to spend a year following Biblical laws literally, and wrote a book about it.  And then went on to write another book about a series of other, small, life experiments.  I’ve read all of these books with varying degrees of interest.  Even my favorite, The Year of Living Biblically, didn’t earn a spot on my permanent bookshelf, but was certainly an entertaining read and sparked several interesting breakfast conversations.  (I feel like that’s one of my criteria for a decent book: did I like it enough to bring it up over breakfast?  Were there enough interesting points to grapple with, and could I repeat them well enough that my husband could engage with them too?)

Anyway.  Jacobs has a new book out called Drop Dead Healthy, in which he details his two-year experiment with his health.  I know this wasn’t on my reading list at the bottom of my last post.  I’ve been on a long waiting list at the library, and just got my copy.  And because my husband also wants to read it before the library’s deadline, I tackled it first.  It was a quick read with some funny moments and interesting facts.  It seemed particularly appropriate that it was my treadmill read when I worked out yesterday (my bike is still in need of a tire change).

Drop Dead Healthy is intended as a sensationalist survey of wacky health practices, and that’s exactly what you get.  It is a series of disconnected studies of various body parts, and accounts of Jacobs’ trying out some of the more wacky ideas on improving them.  There are chapters on the brain, butt, teeth, feet, nose, hands, and many more, and two chapters each on the heart (looking for the perfect exercise regimen) and the stomach (looking for the perfect diet).  Jacobs tries out the extreme opposites in diet recommendations: the raw-food diet (all vegetables) and the cavemen diet (all protein).  He constructs a treadmill desk, runs with Vibrams (those funny little thin rubber shoes that fit around your toes), and takes testosterone pills.  He undergoes intensive examinations by doctors of every stripe, getting his sleep apnea, mental acuity, smelling ability, and moles checked out.  He tries a variety of crazy workout routines, including a pole dancing class, High-Intensity Interval Training, slow weights, and one in which he and other men scrambled around Central Park like cavemen.  We learn all about his crazy aunt Marti, who is obsessed with toxins, and his grandfather, who pushed to make New York City public transportation free for all.

There are plenty of great stories and endlessly repeatable fun facts, but very little follow-through.  In many cases, Jacobs tries an odd exercise class, diet, or other health practice, gets a funny story out of his experience, then finishes by saying something to the effect of “most science doesn’t actually support this.”  It makes you long for more follow-through.  What does science really say about it?  What objections have people raised?  How has it been defended?  This shallow book never really gives readers a solid idea what they should do to be healthy, only a new awareness of off-the-wall health movements.  As an academic, I also object to his casual reference to published science books and articles.  There are no citations whatsoever – no footnotes (which isn’t unexpected in a book marketed to a mass audience) but also not even a bibliography.  Too often, he’ll say something like “a study found…”  Where was the study published?  How did he find it, and how could we find it if we wanted to learn more about the results?  His careless references wouldn’t pass in a classroom and I’m surprised that they fly in a pop science book.

This book is fun, if problematic from an academic basis.  You do learn all sorts of interesting facts, though.  For example, blueberries are known as a superfood due to a marketing campaign by the Maine blueberry industry.  They launched a campaign advertising blueberries’ high antioxidant rating after their campaign suggesting that you put blueberries on hamburgers failed (97).  (Unlike Jacobs, I can cite my source!)  Drop Dead Healthy provides some laughs, some great conversation starters, and a lot of really interesting (and some really bizarre) ways to improve your bodily health.  Have any of you read it?

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