Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #52: Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

CANNONBALL!

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It seems appropriate that I finished this book over Thanksgiving weekend, given our national propensity towards eating a fair bit more than usual during this time. I’d seen this book on the shelves at the bookstore before, and ignored it because it seemed like another cheesy diet book. After a friend described it as a book that made her actively feel smarter, I picked it up.

Before I get into the book, I want to point out that people can be fat for many reasons (as the book will show), and that moreover it is absurd to suggest – as society so often does – that one has to lose weight or become skinny to have value (or to be healthy). Lots of people want to say that fat people are unhealthy because they are fat, but when it comes down to it you really can’t usually tell if someone is healthy simply by looking at them or if you know their height and weight. Moreover, I don’t think anyone owes it to anyone else to be healthy. I think everyone should have access to things that can help them be healthy, but I don’t think anyone owes ME their health. And yes, that includes fat people who some think cost the healthcare system more. First off, they don’t, but secondly, if we’re going to start requiring fat people to lose weight because they might cost us more in health care, then there are a whole lot of other people (people who drive, people who ride in cars, people who smoke, people who ski and might break a leg, people who play professional football) who apparently need to change their behaviors because we think they might cost us more. Alright. On to the review.

The next time you’re around family discussing weight loss, obesity, or anything really related to diet and nutrition, and someone (usually smug, usually skinny) says “it’s a simple matter of physics: calories in has to equal calories out or you’ll gain or lose weight,” hand him a copy of this book, and tell him to not comment on such things until he’s read the whole thing. In addition to possibly contributing to his education, it’ll have the added benefit of shutting him up, because no one wants to hear from that douchey cousin anyway.

Mr. Taubes’ purpose with this book is to examine as much of the science behind weight gain / loss and the diseases that tend to be associated with it as possible. He’s not so much interested in proving or disproving any one hypothesis; he’s interested in seeing what is out there from the last 100+ years and trying to figure out if any of the conventional wisdom we hold regarding weight, nutrition and health stands up to scrutiny. It turns out much of it does not.

There is so much in this book that I can’t cover in this review (especially the discussion on why cholesterol tests may be measuring the wrong thing and ultimately not telling us what we think they are – I need to re-read that section to really understand it), but I wanted to pull out some interesting bits. While looking at some weight studies that have been done, Mr. Taubes pretty quickly dismisses the idea that people are fat because they ‘overeat’ (in fact he repeatedly uses many different studies to fight off this repellant ‘lack of willpower’ argument). The most interesting ones were the studies that had people eating the exact same diet and exerting the same amount of energy (usually these were prison inmates and thus easily tracked) and showing that across the board, some people gained weight, some stayed the same, and some may have lost weight. And among those gaining weight, some would gain two pounds, some would gain 10 or 15. Yes, those are just a few studies, but it does hold up when you think about the people you might know who seem to eat as much as or more than you and yet never gain any significant weight, while you might eat 1,500 calories a day, work out for 30 minutes six times a week, and struggle to fit into a size 16 pants. The question then becomes WHY does this happen?

Another interesting discussion revolved around exercise, and how it may have many health benefits, but that weight loss is not likely among those benefits. I’d read articles about this before; the thinking is that yes, you work out and burn some calories, but the attendant rise in hunger will usually cancel out any weight loss based solely on activity. Let’s say you work out on the elliptical for 30 minutes more than usual and burn and extra 250 calories; just off of the hunger that a workout can produce you might consume that extra 250 with a single Cliff bar on the walk home from the gym. The author is not saying that exercise doesn’t have health benefits; only that those benefits don’t necessarily include weight loss.

It’s so interesting that many of the studies, if properly interpreted, provide very different conclusions than the ones the authors of them – and the policy wonks who reference them – concluded. That then leads to a whole lot of confirmation bias – people looking for support for answers they already have decided are correct and only conducting studies or referencing studies that support the answers they want. So you get one study that claims that fat is bad (but doesn’t actually properly measure that); common sense says well, people who are fat have a lot of fat, so duh, eat less fat to have less fat, and the wheels are set in motion. But what Taubes’ meta-research shows is that it is not fat that makes people fat and keeps people from a lower weight, but simple sugars and carbohydrates.

That’s right – the data (annoyingly) seems to overwhelmingly support the ideas that those obnoxious Atkins / South Beach / no carb diet books promote. Sort of, although not necessarily for the reasons those book site. Taubes’ understanding of the research out there suggests that what matters is not necessarily the amount of energy we consume (via food) but the type we consume that impacts the energy that is available to us, and the consumption of carbohydrates (think flour and potatoes, not the kind found in veggies and fruits) hinders the ability to make use of the energy we already have stored in our body, while also adding to those stores and increasing our fat. The book goes into a lot of detail and is very dense, so it’s hard to synthesize it down to this review (he’s apparently followed this book up with a book targeted more at the average reader, not science readers). But I am going to say that the argument he makes was really convincing to me. There’s so much more to say, but this review is already silly long, so if you’re interested (or screaming NO YOU’RE WRONG while reading this), then pick up the book.

As I said, this is NOT a diet book; however, the epilogue does offer his thoughts on what he thinks his meta-research has shown and what that means for people who want to maintain certain weight levels and stave off some diseases (the section on sugar and diseases is enough for me to seriously contemplate giving up added sugar completely), but he points out that there is so much more research that should be done and IS NOT being done because society assumes it already gets it. It’s sort of like the drunk who drops her keys and then only looks for them under where the streetlight is shining; it’s the easiest place to look, but that doesn’t mean the keys are there, and she’s likely going to miss them if the light is only shining on a small bit of street. We seem so focused on the ‘conventional wisdom’ (and so few of us have really read the studies) but that wisdom seems to have really not worked for so many people, so perhaps it’s time to focus more on what we haven’t yet tested.

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Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #51: Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

I was looking for another light comedic memoir to listen to on Audible, and this was perfect. It’s light but not fluffy, sweet but not saccharine, clean but not simple or boring. Yes, it is, as he says, ‘family friendly,’ but that doesn’t mean that it’s for you to listen to with your kids.

There are just a couple of problems with the book; it feels a little short, and it isn’t as linear as I would like. I do recognize that it’s a comedy book, and not a straight-up memoir, but the last chapter especially felt like it belonged somewhere else.

The stories Mr. Gaffigan tells are entertaining. The book revolves around his life as a father, but it opens with a story about travelling to the Grand Canyon while still childless, with a couple who had a newborn. It’s a great start, because it relates Gaffigan to the childless without making him sound patronizing when he later tells his stories involving parenthood. He recognizes the differences in the pre (or no) child life and the parent life.

From there he moves on to talking about the different ways that having children has affected his life. He has five kids in a two-bedroom NYC apartment, so he clearly has a lot to say on the matter. There are some great one-liners – like his description of a place that isn’t kid friendly: “I always think man, this place must be awesome, let’s get a sitter.” He also takes on sexism and pregnancy, pointing out the absurdity of people acting surprised or bummed when extremely attractive women get pregnant. Like, why wouldn’t they want to have kids?

I am not having children, so believe me when I say that non-parents and parents alike can enjoy this book. There is some excellent social commentary in there, such as when he delves into why people feel the need to comment on the number of children people have. I’m not an asshole, but it’s still a good reminder of what not to say to people when they tell you they’re having a kid.

I highly recommend the audio version, because you get to enjoy Gaffigan’s stellar delivery.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #50: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page: Blackwater is a horrible, horrible, horrible company, right? Like, everyone with a conscience is aware of that fact? Everyone who works there is not a horrible person (many are just trying to survive), but we all know that the organization is bloody awful, yes?

Okay, so starting from that premise, why read a book that tells you in detail about how horrible it is? Because it’s good. Really good. It is very well researched, with a level of detail in the writing that brings home the realities of just how atrocious an organization this is.

Scahill provides a history of the company, from its roots in the southern U.S., through the Iraq war and into present day, where Blackwater (now ACADEMI) has truly terrifying plans. He discusses the problems of a mercenary army – recruitment, payment, accountability (well, lack thereof), lawlessness. He uses the murder of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah as backdrop against which the book is set, returning to what happened, how it happened, and the impact on the families. That running story points out how expendable these contractors are to the company. Their lives may be on the line, and they may be getting great compensation (unless they are from South American or Africa, which Scahill addresses in the book), but in the end, the company doesn’t care about them. Their deaths are a PR issue, but that’s about it.

The biggest problem with contractors like Blackwater from the perspective of the county and the world is that they are essentially mercenaries. They are paid to protect the elite, to do things that our military might or might not be able to do, and they aren’t accountable to anyone. They may technically be subcontractors, but they aren’t covered by the same laws as private citizens, and they pretend to be military even though they don’t have the same oversight. They can do whatever they want with minimal consequences; claiming immunity as a quasi-military organization. It’s despicable.

From the perspective of the families of the contractors who are killed due to the careless policies of Blackwater (and, by extension, the U.S. government for contracting with them), these contractors don’t get the same respect and care as the military. Some of them may be doing work that troops would have done in the past, but because they aren’t military, they don’t get the same benefits, or support. Is that wrong? I don’t know. You can argue they know what they signed up for, but Blackwater is so shady that who knows what they were really told, and how much time they all had to really review what they signed.

Beyond the tasks Blackwater performed in Iraq and Afghanistan, they also ingratiated themselves in the Katrina response, taking part in disaster profiteering. They lied about saving lives, and tried to not pay the contractors the prevailing ways.

This company isn’t just bad for the reasons stated above; they are bad because of what they represent: a shift from governmental accountability to private (stockholder / owner) accountability. One thing about war is that the country is supposed to feel the consequences of it. It should keep us from just going to war with anyone we dislike, without cause. But as more of the actions are shifted to mercenary companies like Blackwater, who’s to speak up and say it’s not okay?

If you have any interest in this, and want to have some details to back up your understanding that Blackwater is just appalling, check out the book.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #49: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

So, you know what’s creepy? Treating women as empty vessels. Vessels whose sole purpose is to become pregnant to continue on a specific race or religious group’s existence. You know what else is creepy? When the ritual surrounding getting those women pregnant involves a handmaid laying on a wives torso while the husband ejaculates inside of her.

Spoiler alert: this isn’t a happy book. It’s not full of hope, it’s not one woman fighting against a horrific, patriarchal society that only values her if she can produce a child. It’s not the Hunger Games, and Offred (the name, so disturbing) is not Katniss. This is a book that details the dullness of the life of the handmaid, that special class of women who were schooled together to become wombs for the elite. These women are not being allowed to read. They must accept being penetrated by the head of the house monthly. They go on daily chores covered head to toe, with literal side blinders on. They eat their meals in their rooms, alone.

When particularly draconian reproductive rights cuts are put into law, you’ll sometimes hear this book mentioned, and with good reason. The book may outline an extreme society, but disturbingly enough, it’s not so extreme as to be unimaginable. I don’t see the U.S. becoming Gilead as it does in the book, but I see the thinking that permeates that fictional society underlying so many of the anti-choice laws being proposed and passed these days. As I type this, the city of Albuquerque is voting on whether some reproductive rights should be taken away from the women who live there.

The writing in this book is heavy, but it didn’t take long to read. I think it’s a good book to read, although I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s one of those books that is important, and I think should be added to the reading list of anyone who cares about our rights being slowly chipped away.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #48: The Art of the Visit: Becoming the Perfect Guest by Kathy Bertone

Another book I’m wrapping up – this one is only a month old, and was another purchase at Anthropologie. I cannot get out of there without buying a hard-cover etiquette or lifestyle book with fancy font and great colors on it. The clothing rarely fits, but the books so often do.

As the title suggests, this book is about things to keep in mind when you have houseguest and when you are a houseguest. I’ve actually not seen an etiquette book devoted solely to this topic – usually it’s covered in those giant Leticia Baldridge / Emily Post tomes, but not on its own. And at over 250 pages, it covers a lot.

The book isn’t bad – there are a lot of sound tips. Some are things you’d obviously think of, but some are kind of fun and clever. The next time we have people in town, or the next time we visit family (holiday travel is right around the corner) I’m going to consult the book. The first bit covers being a host, the second bit covers being a guest, and the other sections have suggestions about special considerations to take when your guests are kids (especially good if you don’t have any) and elderly folks.

There’s not much more I can say. The writing is definitely coming from someone who has a different sense of humor than I do. Some comments are condescending, some are insulting, some are obliviously outdated. The only attempt at humor that actually landed and made me laugh out loud probably was accidental. But if you like this type of book, and you ever have houseguests, or stay at other people’s homes, I’d recommend it.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #47: Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

As I close in on the full Cannonball, I’m trying to wrap up a lot of books that I’ve put down over the course of the year. There’s a science book, one of the Song of Ice and Fire series, another etiquette book, and one on goddesses (seriously). And then there’s this one, which I started way back in January. Why the ten month break between starting and finishing it? Well … I just did not like it.

Manifesta is on a lot of ‘must read’ feminism book lists, but I found it to be mediocre. The writing isn’t bad – it’s not like Cinderella’s Lost Diary or whatever that unfortunate book was that Cannonballers were offered for free earlier this year. My problem is that it’s not actually what it claims to be – a feminism manifesto. It’s more like a thrown-together anthology of white feminism, with some ‘picture this’ writing thrown in. The chapters feel disjointed, and I’m not entirely clear what the authors sought to do with this book. Were they trying to say what the ‘third wave’ feminists are contributing to feminism as a whole? Were they trying to explore what previous feminists did (and how that was and was not successful)? Trying to outline what we should be doing going forward? I think a book could be successful in doing all three, but that’s not this book.

In addition to the book feeling disjointed and unfocused, there were so many areas where they missed opportunities to really explore feminism – warts and all. There was even one point where I wanted to just throw the book out the window, but was nearly 200 pages in so I just stuck it out. That moment was during a discussion of toys for young girls, and the issues with Barbie, and the attempts to push Mattel to sell Barbies that look more like all girls – so not just blond, white Barbies. The authors passed that off as “PC,” and they meant that as an insult. Any book that uses the concept of “Politically Correct” as though it is derogatory just isn’t a good book in my opinion. Saying something is ‘politically correct’ means that it’s showing some empathy to people, and recognizing that straight, white, cis people aren’t all who matter.

That very specific issue is one example of the larger problem with this book – it’s so, very, very white. Yes, the authors mention contributions from women of color (usually in passing), but they don’t acknowledge any of the larger issues with mainstream white feminism. They buy into the “women fought to join the workforce and stay there after the war” story, for example, but don’t acknowledge that many women of color had already been working for decades. They don’t recognize the complexity of race, gender and sexuality – it’s a lot of Gloria Steinem and one reference to bell hooks.

Going forward, I’ll be avoiding these generic overviews of feminism, whether targeting and young women or not. I’m more interested in learning about the full history of feminism, and womanism, and reading books that look at the bigger issues of intersectionality that mainstream feminism keeps ignoring.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #46: The Kid by Dan Savage

I reviewed Dan Savages new book American Savage over the summer. When I heard that The Kid was available on audio book read by Mr. Savage himself, I quickly downloaded it. I planned to listen to it on runs but it was so good that after about three 20-minute runs I said screw it and listened to it all day until it was done. And it was good.

The Kid follows Mr. Savage and his boyfriend (now husband) Terry Miller’s adoption of a baby through an open adoption process in Portland, Oregon. The book is broken up into sections that roughly follow the idea of pregnancy – gestation, birth, afterbirth (heh) – and include details of the challenges they faced as well as some fun stories about Mr. Savage and Mr. Miller that are relevant but not just about choosing to have a baby. For example, Mr. Savage became a republican in 1996 because there weren’t any in his neighborhood, which meant he was the precinct captain and got to try to influence the platform. That’s pretty funny.

Many of the stories focus on the uniqueness of two gay men adopting a child, especially the many years ago when Mr. Savage and Mr. Miller made the decision to become parents. In their intro seminar with the agency, it was all couples who were adopting because they weren’t able to conceive. As you can imagine, that meant they were coming at the process from a somewhat different place than other families. They weren’t trying to come to terms with infertility issues – that was kind of the deal from the beginning, being two men and all. Mr. Savage was also clear to point out that gay adoption wasn’t legal in all states at this time, and that “the more gay and lesbian couples raise children, the less easy it will be for the religious right to convince everyone that we’re monsters.”

They chose to adopt through an agency that deals solely in fully open adoptions, and I found it very interesting to learn details of Oregon law. In the past I’ve heard about open adoptions, but really learning about them, and about the laws that help make it easier for all involved was fascinating. And please note – I have no interest in bearing or adopting children, and this was still extremely interesting to me, so don’t be worried you won’t like it just because you aren’t interesting in having kids, or adopting them. As you can imagine (otherwise there wouldn’t be a book), they do eventually get chosen by a birth mother. Her story is interesting too, as is their attempts to navigate the relationship they are building together, premised around this baby she is going to give to them to raise. It’s sweet, but NOT overly sentimental. I loved that.

One recommendation – if you are going to listen to or read the book, as it gets near the end, if you’re a crier, maybe set some alone time. When it comes time for them to take the baby, it’s heartbreaking. The language Mr. Savage uses is lovely, and a real tribute to all parties involved – the birth mother, the agency, and Mr. Savage and Mr. Miller. Adoption is obviously hard but an amazing choice, and the open adoption process seems to be filled with so much compassion and caring for the child and all the parties involved.

One point Mr. Savage made repeatedly that is obvious but good to be reminded about is the assumptions people make when they see babies. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I find that I’m surrounded by mostly progressive, or at least liberal, folks. I live in the same neighborhood as Mr. Savage and Mr. Miller and their son; seeing same-sex couples with babies is not something that makes me bat an eye. But people who either have not been exposed to that, or have chosen to ignore that it’s a real thing can make unintentionally hurtful comments. For example, if you see two men with a baby, don’t ask where mommy is. Maybe there is no mommy in the picture. It’s none of our business though – it’s important to not jump to any conclusions.

As you can see, I really enjoyed this book, especially the audio version of it. If you’re in the market for a great story with heart but no saccharine, check this one out.