NaJuReMoNoMoI haven’t forgotten that January is National Just Read More Novels Month.  I did a warm up the last week of December reading Dick and Felix Francis’s Silks and Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader.  I reread Mum’s collection of Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters – she has about ten of them.

On the journey home, I read Maeve Binchy’s Dublin 4, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I have since read Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids; this was probably a reread rather than a new novel.

I still have a few days to go until the end of the month – most read more novels.  Like it’s hard.


Fourth Annual NaJuReMoNoMo

I nearly forgot to mention this and claim my prize, these very cool icons:


Every January Yellojkt at  FOMA holds this NaJuReMoNoMo (National Just Read More Novels Month) to challenge us to read new novels.  I haven’t done too well this year with just four under my belt and one of those was a very easy Debbie MacComber Christmas at Cedar Cove (Amazon) which took me just over an hour to read, so it  feels like cheating. But, hey, it was a new novel to me.

The other new novels I read were:

Rosamunde Pilcher Voices in the Summer (Amazon)

I love Pilcher’s books but this one seemed particularly dated

Joan London Gilgamesh (Amazon)

Weird, odd and I did not really get it

Tracy Chevalier Burning Bright (Amazon)

A typical Chevalier romp through William Blake’s London.

It is a very Chicklit kind of list.  I should get more serious with my reading but when I do, these days, I typically read nonfiction.

Total Leadership Introduction

About six months ago I heard a radio interview on NPR with Stewart Friedman about his new book “Total Leadership”.  I was so impressed with some of his ideas of linking all areas of life together that I immediately ordered the book from Amazon.  However, as it turned out at that time I was not ready to read through this book and undertake the introspection required for me to move forward as a leader. So I put the book aside and carried on with my life.

It seems that the time has come for me to pick up this book again and work through the exercises that are required for me to grow into a total leader.  I hope to share some of these exercises on my blog.  Not all, as I am cautious about being too personal and revealing in a public area so more personal questions will not be written about here.

If you want to find out more the book is available from Amazon and there is a website and a blog.

In Defense of Food Review Part 4: Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5

This is the last part of my review of this book. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 review the earlier sections of the book. This section gives advice about how to go forward and relearn our relationship with food.

So what can we do to improve our diet and escape from nutritionism?

“People eating a western diet [grr] are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.”


Stop eating the Western diet.

I would if I knew what you meant by it [see Review Part 3 for my rant on”Western Diet”]. To stop eating badly, Pollan acknowledges, requires us to change our way of thinking about food which is very challenging as the western diet is every in our food environment. Additionally, we have lost the cultural tools we need to judge what is good to eat. Even avoiding processed food by buying fresh or whole food means that we need to be aware of hidden industrialization such as beef raised in a feedlot and given antibiotics and hormones.

Pollan started his book with the advice: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. In this section of the book, he breaks down his advice under those three headings.

Eat Food.

Obvious really. Remember, however, that Pollan distinguishes between food and edible-food like substances. So to guide us he has come up with some tips, some of which discuss below:

Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food.

In other words, look back to your family traditions of past generations and try to eat that way. I do have few issues with that as my great grandmothers would not recognize many of the new fruits I love as food. I am not even sure that oranges would be familiar to some of them. Bananas and mangoes almost definitely were not in Britain at that time. I am lucky in that one side of the family come from central Europe and another from France (and Wales and England) so I have more choices of what to eat than if they were only from England.

It also means that I should be buying my food on a more regular basis. No once a week or once a month grocery shopping as storage would have been limited in the 19th Century as there were no ice boxes or refrigerators.

I should also be eating more seasonally; no green beans or strawberries in the middle of winter. In fact, I only like strawberries for about two weeks a year, which is the way I grew up eating them. For those two weeks that English strawberries, as opposed to Spanish, were available, we would feast on them, eating them almost every night with sugar and cream and make jam with the rest.

Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That are a)Unfamiliar b)Unpronounceable c)more than five in number or that include d)High Fructose Corn Syrup.

So you won’t be able to eat the cake I just made at home because it contains flour, sugar, vanilla, water, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa and vinegar. It is also iced which adds another couple of ingredients. Additionally, this bread is out.

Admittedly I did have a student who had the policy of not eating foods that had more than 10 ingredients which makes more sense than five.

Oh, yeah. High fructose corn syrup is the new ogre. It is not any worse than sucrose (table sugar) but that is an argument for another day.

Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims

Yeah, I can deal with this one. Remember Cheerios never contained much fat and some “low” fat foods are as high or even higher in calories than the full fat version. I personally prefer natural yoghurt that is full fat; I do not need so much as a low fat version.

Get Out of the Supermarket Whenever Possible

Does Trader Joe’s or Wholefoods or even my local Natural Food Coop count here? Mind you, Pollan is well known for his scorn of Wholefoods Market.

Farmers’ Markets can be great fun as can local farm stands. I was excited to see about four or five farm stands ON MY WAY to my new job. They are not open yet – it is the middle of winter here still – but I am looking forward to stopping on my way home later in the year.

Mostly Plants

I already eat mostly plants and as I commented in Part 3 this should be eat only plants. Oh yeah, eat fungi and yeast too. Just stop eating meat and fish. Perhaps limit them only once a week? Please, pretty, please.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves

Not sure where broccoli and cauliflower and okra and eggplant and zucchini and squash and potatoes and and… and… fit in here.

Phytochemicals, fiber, and antioxidants present in plants are great for our health. These include nutrients that nutritional scientists have yet to realize that we need.

Pollan cannot find a compelling health reason to exclude meat from his diet.He does suggest limiting meat consumption by making it a side dish instead the centerpiece of the meal. Additionally, he does point out that industrial meet production, especially in the US, is brutal and unnecessarily cruel. Environmental and ethical reasons are not discussed at length in his book; if you want to know more read Peter Singer’s book. Remember, however:

You Are What What You Eat Eats Too.

If you have the space, buy a freezer

Especially good for buying food in season when there is a glut and having it available year round. Freezing vegetables and fruit is relatively easy and causes less nutritional damage than most other preservation methods.

Eat Well-Grown Good From Healthy Soils

Not necessarily organic as not all small producers are certified for organic farming. Also we have a number of fruit producers that do everything right – it seems, but the organic requirements for fruit are so stringent that it would be impossible to have decent fruit or any fruit if they were followed. Get to know your local food producer and find out what they do to produce their food.

Not Too Much

French paradox. I might write about this in another post. At least appreciate food as well as the French do: Linger over meals, savor each mouthful and use high quality ingredients.

Pay More. Eat Less.

Portion sizes – we tend to eat what we are given rather than what we need. I will eat a whole bag of chips (crisps) whatever size rather it weighs 60 g or 30 g. I know as I just did this. I knew I should only eat about half the packet of the 30 g bag as the label said there were two servings inside but the whole pack disappeared.

At a recent one day conference, they handed out 14 oz bags of chips, this is one serving, but this seemed really tiny.

There has been lots of research showing that animals on a calorie restricted diet live longer. Eating less appears to cut back on cell division and reduces the production of free radicals and other toxic chemicals in our bodies.

The tip I learnt many years ago, probably first through yoga, not that I take any notice today, is to eat until you are 70% full, Pollan suggests 80%. The question is to learn how to recognize this and not allow the 20-30% empty feeling to make you eat more.

Eat Meals

Stop snacking. Pollan raises this interesting point:

“I may be showing my age, but didn’t there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between-meal snack? Well, it is gone. Amercians today mark time all day long with nibbles of food and sips of soft drinks, which must be constantly at their sides, lest they expire during the haul between breakfast and lunch.”

Try Not to Eat Alone

This has to be his hardest piece of advice for me. As I am not meant to eat out as much, to avoid the temptations of the western diet offered by restaurants, I should prepare food at home where I live alone.

After reading this, I gathered a group of friends and we cooked a meal together. We made this pizza and had a fun evening. I must try to do this on a regular basis:Cook and eat together evenings”.

Eat Slowly

This goes with my comment about enjoying your food like the French.

Cook and, if you can, plant a garden

I do this one already and the exercise from gardening helps with the weight gain, except the fresh air makes me hungry. Even a window box full of salad would benefit your diet.

This was his final bit of advice and he concluded by reminding us that food is more than the nutrients it contains:

[…] food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. I am thinking of the relationship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the meal. It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by.

Food is a culture, your own unique culture; food is your history. In addition, if you garden you realize that food has its own history – where did the variety of tomato come from? What about that corn, or that pepper – so sweet having just come in from the garden straight to the kitchen. Food tastes so much nicer when it is less than an hour old.

While I agree with Pollan on bits of his advice, there are some bits missing:

Pollan lives in Northern California where the food supply is somewhat different to the rest of the US let alone the rest of the World. Southern California is probably the only place with a better food supply. Remember they have asparagus available in March – mine comes up in May. This makes eating locally a whole lot easier.

If you are interested in gardening especially somewhere with a less welcoming climate, read Gussow’s This Organic Life. She discusses the issues of trying to garden in suburban New York. Personally, I would ignore the double digging information – raised beds are the best way to go especially if you live on clay soil like I do.

Exercise. Totally ignored by Pollan. The equation, as I have mentioned earlier is:

Calories in – Calories out = Energy balance.

So follow Pollan’s advice as given in his book and, in addition, walk, ride a bike, jump rope or buy a mower you have to push or do something to get more exercise.

Remember as Pollan says in his introduction:

“You may well, and rightly, wonder who am I to tell you how to eat? Here I am advising you to reject the advice of scientists and industry – and blithely go on to offer my own advice. So on whose authority do I purport to speak? I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense. Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or once did until we allowed the nutrition experts and advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense, tradition, the testimony of out senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.”

He does not necessarily know the answers, so start asking the questions and looking for answers yourself. Start listening to your body and learn to recognize when what you would like is a Snickers Bar, but what you need is a glass of water and an apple.

Eat well, stay in touch, and have a good life.*


with apoplogises to Garrison Keillor: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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Book Review: In Defense of Food Part 3: Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5

The phrases “diseases of civilization” takes me right back to undergraduate days. For my senior thesis I investigated the diet of South Africans. The whites were dying of the same diseases as the Americans, British and other rich nations. The blacks had kwashiorkor, xerothalamia, and other nutritional diseases of very poor countries. So what are the diseases of civilization?

In this book diseases of civilization are also known as metabolic syndrome or syndrome X which are, apparently, medical terms used to describe for the complex of health problems caused by eating the Western Diet (I really hate that term (more on that in a bit)).

“Metabolic syndrome has been implicated not only in the development of type-2 diabetes, but also in obesity hypertension, heart disease, and possibly certain cancers.”

Epidemiological evidence has shown over and over again that as people emigrate to the USA and adopt the new dietary pattern, giving up their traditional diet, their dietary health indicators worsened.

“Some [researchers] noted that the Western diseases followed closely on the heels of the arrival of Western foods, particularly refined flour and sugar and other kinds of “store foods”. They observed too that when one Western disease arrived on the scene, so did most of the others, and often in the same order: obesity followed by type 2 diabetes followed by hypertensions and stroke followed by heart disease.”

Western diet. This phrase makes me gag. It really is meaningless. Pollan never explains what exactly is in the “western diet”. Even Wikipedia lets me down on this one with these sites not really telling me about what is considered to be in the western pattern diet or the standard American diet. A search of Google gives me lots of links to articles that link the WPD to disease, but even these do not really define what it contains exactly. Is the WPD the same all over the World? Somehow, I doubt it.

So we have a whole chapter discussing a pattern of eating without exactly knowing what is that pattern of eating. No wonder my teeth grate whenever I see that term.

The final half of this section, is a discussion on the five major ways in which our diet has changed for the worse in the last century or so:

1) From Whole Foods to Refined

2) From Complexity to Simplicity

3) From Quality to Quantity

4) From Leaves to Seeds

5) From Food Culture to Food Science

Seems a good list to me, but a sixth is missing:

6) From Plant Centered Eating to Meat Center Eating

As a vegetarian, it is obvious that Pollan is avoiding the vegetarian band wagon, despite telling us to “eat mostly plants“. It is almost laughable. Come on Michael, admit it, we eat a lot more meat than we used to and this is one of the MAIN reasons for our current dietary woes. Do not worry, us vegetarians will not eat you. Yeah, so the American diet is based too heavily on corn, soy and wheat and we eat a lot of processed foods containing these three ingredients. We probably should eat less food in total and food does not taste as good when it is processed compared to being made at home. It would not hurt if we ate more leafy vegetables and sitting around with friends chatting over a meal is a great thing to do but MEAT consumption Michael – it just is too high in the US. According to the USDA:

“In 2000, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) reached 195 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 57 pounds above average annual consumption in the 1950s. (link)”

That is 195 pounds/per person/per year! 8 ½ oz per person per day! And I do not even eat the stuff. That same USDA article mentions:

“ERS [Economic Research Service] data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000.”

My next quibble with this section of “In Defense of Food” is with the “4) From Leaves to Seeds”, as it is a LOAD OF CRAP. Pollan has a long section on how eating seeds, corn, soy and wheat in particular, causes our diet to have an omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid imbalance [see omega-6 to omega-3 ratio for more information]. However, discussing omega-3 fatty acids without mentioning flaxseed (note the seed part of the name) or walnuts, both of which are some of the main terrestrial sources of omega-3 fatty acids means that you just lost the attention of every food scientist or nutritionist worth their salt as they are either gobsmacked or rofl. Pollan could easily have put a paragraph in mentioning flaxseed but he ignores it completely. That totally lost the argument for me.

This chapter was the weakest of the whole book. The science was weak and the lack of discussion on the effects of having a meat-centered diet together ignorance over flaxseed as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, lost the argument with the people he should be convincing most, which is a pity because Pollan is right. The problem with our current diet is that we do eat to much fat, sugar, refined grains, calories and not enough vegetables, fruit and whole grains. This highly refined diet is causing “Metabolic Syndrome” increasing the incidence of obesity and type-2 diabetes, which can be prevented by changing the way we eat.

That is the topic of the next and final section of “In Defense of Food”.

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Book Review Part 2: In Defense of Food. Part 1: The Age of Nutritionism

Review: Part 1

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5


English Cover Image

As mentioned in the first part of my review of “In Defense of Food”, nutritionism is not same as nutrition, which is a science, but it is the ideology surrounding food as only a supply of nutrients. The term was defined by Gyorgy Scrinis in 2002:

“[…] namely, that we should understand and engage with food and our bodies in terms of their nutritional and chemical constituents and requirements – the assumption being that is all we need to understand.”

Foods are used to promote physical health with some nutrients being “good” and others being “bad”. In the nineteenth century the German organic chemist Justus von Liebig promoted meat as it was high in protein. For any British readers, Von Liebig meat extract company developed OXO. Protein was the master nutrient as eating more protein lead to bigger and, obviously, healthier people. However, for every “good” nutrient we need a corresponding “bad” nutrient, hence leading to fads of anti-fat, anti- carbohydrate, or anti-protein.

The biggest problem with nutritionism is that it is only based on nutrients that can be measured. At first this meant the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrates. As analytical technology improves, there is more concern about food components, both good and badthat are present in smaller and smaller amounts. This explains the recent interest in phytochemicals and in potential carcinogens such as heterocyclic amines and acrylamide.

The increase awareness of food as a supply of nutrients lead to the development of dietary guidelines and this, in turn, lead to the golden age for food science [technology]. I do agree that it is ridiculous that processed food items, such as Cheerios, can have a health claim while fresh produce, such as carrots, do not. As Pollan’s biggest criticism of science is that food animals are now breed to be leaner; ignoring that fact that before the 1980s, beef and pigs were originally breed to be fatter, I do contest that he is being selective with the science being used.

For example, Pollan quotes extensively from an article by Frank et al (2001)* but with this quote I have doubts about their nutritional knowledge:

“Surprisingly, there was little direct evidence linking high egg consumption and increased risk of CHD – surprisingly [Pollan goes on to write], because eggs are particularly high in cholesterol.”

This should not be surprising to any nutritionist. I was taught in the 1980s that dietary cholesterol has NO bearing on serum cholesterol levels unless you suffer from some form of hyperlipidaemia. Thus, dietary cholesterol is less of a risk than dietary fat.

Additionally, there is a problem with Pollan’s critique of dietary guidelines and the food industry, some of which I addressed earlier. Pollan is justifiably very critical about trans fats as they appear to have turned out to be more harmful that traditional saturated fats, but like Taubes, he is selective in the scientific literature he uses to discuss the low-fat diet. The biggest criticism I have of Pollan and Taubes is that they IGNORE both calories and physical activity. This may be a fault of the dietary guidelines; until the latest version of the food pyramid, exercise was not mentioned in relationship to diet. Additionally, Pollan ignores the increase in portion size and that effect on diet. Ask any European visiting the US for the first time – portions here are huge, but my experience tells me that you soon adapt to this and start feeding yourself more at home too.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, with the low-fat dietary theory is that people are now scared of fat and think they should not eat any. They eat low fat everything without considering the taste. It would be better to eat smaller amounts of high fat food than a large portion.

According to Pollan the biggest problem with nutrition is that it is, like most sciences, a reductionist science. Understanding how our body responds to food and nutrients is enormously complex. Most nutrition studies isolate one part of the diet; whole grains or fiber, for example; and study its effect on one bodily function; for example, weight or serum cholesterol; without considering either the whole diet or the whole body. However, changing your intake of whole grains may alter your intake of fruit and vegetables.

I do agree with Pollan’s conclusion:

“Now, all this might be tolerable if eating by the light of Nutritionism made us, if not happier, then at least healthier. That is has failed to do. Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished. Which is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: In need of a whole new way to think about eating.”

Part three of my review, Part II: The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization, to follow.

Frank et al (2001) Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 20(1) 5.

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Arthur C Clarke Dead at 90

We interrupt the Food Fest for an important announcement:

One of the first science fiction writers I read has died. An era has ended. Arthur C Clarke wrote some of the leading science fiction books including Space Odyssey:2001, A Fall of Moondust, and The Fountains of Paradise. The last of which explored the idea of a space elevator, which I still find fascinating.

Book Review: In Defense of Food. Part 1: Introduction

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Part 1: Introduction

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5

What should we eat? This common question is asked of me many times when people find out that I was a nutrition major. Michael Pollan answers this question at the beginning of the introduction:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

As a vegetarian I can hardly object to that; especially the last statement. Surely, we all eat food, just too much of it. Pollan says not. Fresh food is better than processed “edible foodlike substances”:

These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims,

He also does not like health claims. They are, Pollan claims, dangerous for your health and I have already commented on his critique of food science. Which if you had done your homework from Sunday, you would have already read.

This book cannot be discussed without introducing the concept of nutritionism as this is beaten to death throughout the book. Nutritionism is not a science but an ideology. It is the idea that we eat to obtain nutrients rather than for all the cultural and social reasons that are the reasons we really eat. Nutritionism is encouraged by the food industry as it helps sell products (all those health claims), nutritional scientists and journalists.

He does not mention that fact that most nutritionist would agree that diet plays a minor role in our health. While taking my degree, I recall being told that if gender was a risk factor of 10%, hereditary diseases, such as hyperlipidaemia, was also 10% as was smoking. If you took all the dietary factors together – high fibre, low fat, yoghurt is good – your health risk was reduced by 3%. So even assuming that nutritional science has progressed in the few [ahem, 20] years since I graduated, changing your diet will have a small effect on your wellbeing, coming in fourth place a long way behind gender, genetics and smoking.

Pollan admits that part of the problem is the American diet [he calls it the Western diet, a phrase, you will read in a later post, makes me grind my teeth] since four of the top ten causes of death; cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer are linked to diet. Actually, I dispute the links for the last two. Not all cancers are dietary related – prostate, breast and ovarian cancers are not. As for stroke and diet, I would need to do more research before I made any comments. Salt has been linked with high blood pressure which is linked with a higher incidence of stroke, but it is some time since I read the literature on that issue. One of the more serious problems is that we no longer know what food is, or what a meal should consist of, and thus we do not have a clue as to what we should be eating. Part of the problem is the shifting ground of nutrition information. Should we follow the low fat, low carb, low calorie, margarine vs. butter, omega-3 fatty acids trend?

Our food confusion is also aided by the $32 billion spent on food marketing.

The problem with the American diet can be traced back to the industrialization of food production which meant that it was next to impossible to sustain traditional ways of eating [what are these?] as food was grown with the use of synthetic chemicals and meat was grown with the use of hormones and steroids. In the sixties, in the US:

The supermarket had become the only place to buy food, and real food was rapidly disappearing from its shelves, to be replaced by the modern cornucopia of highly processed foodlike products.

The rest of the book is divided into three sections:

  1. The Age of Nutritionism
  2. The Western Diet and Diseases of Civilization
  3. Getting Over Nutritionism

I will discuss each section in turn otherwise this review will be too long.

UK cover

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NaJuReMoNoMo Winner! Northern Lights by Philip Pullman


AKA The Golden Compass the title I assume refering to the Alethiometer which only Lyra can read, which predicts the future in a semi-mystical way. The Northern Lights title of the British edition refers to the Aurora borealis [which I have still yet to see] in which a city from another universe can be seen when photographed using certain emulsions and by Lyra. It is the alethiometer that fascinates me the most. The picture on Wikipedia does not satisfy me. I imagined it as a mixture of a chronometer and a sextant and I wasn’t quite sure how the different needles were set. Being more like a watch makes more sense both in terms of use and size for storage.

Considering how much is already written about this series of books I won’t add to it! Including an extensive discussion on Snopes’ urban legend pages of the anti-chrisitianity theme in the book.

I started this Sunday and finished it the same day. I was going to take my time and spread the reading of it over a few days but it was too gripping and I am unable to stop reading when I am enjoying a book. I am, however, in no hurry to read the rest of the series, savoring this one for a little while. I doubt it will be more than a month before I buy the next two, mind you.