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



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.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #76: The Third Twin by Ken Follett

A heady mix of science, politics, thriller and romance, Follett’s The Third Twin is about the not-so-distant possibility of human cloning, and forces us to look at some of the ethical,social, and political ramifications of going there.

Jeannie Ferrami is a young scientist working at a respected Ivy League school and using corporate funding to look at the genetics of criminals through the study of twins. Steve Logan, a smart, mature and well-adjusted young man who is invited to join her study denies that he is a twin, but his parents vehemently deny that he is as well. Nonetheless, Jeannie’s brilliantly-conceived software has turned up Steve’s identical twin, who just happens to be a psychotic killer in jail but whose parents also deny that he was a twin. A mystery, for sure, but they are the perfect pair for her study on nature-vs-nurture, she thinks, until her university sponsor freaks at her discovery and plugs the plug on her project, and then on her career. But not before a “third twin” turns up, and the count-down begins on whether Jeannie can uncover the mystery and stay alive at the same time while the bad guys escalate their threats to protect their decades’ long illegal project..

Follett introduces the “third twin” in a rather contrived way, unfortunately—he’s a crazed rapist who just happens to enter Ferrami’s campus and rape her best friend. When the police get a description of the rapist, it fits Steve perfectly, of course, and he gets framed for the attack.  But Jeannie has interviewed Steve and is convinced he doesn’t fit the rapist profile, and goes to bat for him. Their budding romance adds to the plot, as Jeannie is stalked by the rapist and has to rely on her cunning (and our suspension of disbelief) to distinguish him from Steve.

Follett’s exciting writing and fully-developed characters enhance a challenging plot, more than making up for some of the contrivances he is forced to use to pull all his threads together. An enjoyable read.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #49: Gulp by Mary Roach

gulp-9781851689934Tripping the light fantastic down the alimentary canal, right through from soup to, er, nuts, Mary Roach continues her run of popular science writing that yuks it up. Sometimes yuck. The squick factor is high with this one.

Roach points out that we don’t know a helluva lot about the digestive system, although pseudoscience abounds. Just today, I stumbled across a yoga magazine article arguing that raw foods contain more nutrients, fercrissakes. She jumps around from the magic of saliva, to Elvis’s super colon – poor old King – and the various crank cures for cleansing/improving/speeding up your plumbing equipment. There’s enemas with holy water and a brief but fascinating excursion up in to the prison economy fuelled by ‘hooping’ i.e. smuggling contraband in using the backdoor.

I loved two of her previous books, Stiff and Bonk, but I found this a more erratic in tone and harder to warm up to. Part of Roach’s schtick is quick comic sketches of her subjects, but sometimes these fall flat – and why does every single female she interviews get described by her level of attractiveness? That clangs. I was also driven to distraction by her wavering empathy levels. She’s touched by the plight of animal test subjects, but is incredibly callous when it comes to discussing human drug mules or people stricken by eating disorders.

The book is strong on interesting trivia and I certainly learned more about what happens to my daily victuals. I’ve been merrily grossing out friends and acquaintances with my new-found knowledge, and would recommend it as a decent introduction to the subject.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #35: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin

Are our feelings “a more reliable barometer than facts?” If you think you know something ‘in your gut,’ do you ignore the science that strongly suggests you are wrong?

I started this book before Jenny McCarthy was hired to be on The View, reminding many of us of how her activism has likey harmed so many children. While some are looking forward to seeing her strong personality come out while discussing the latest pop culture news with Whoopie Goldberg, others are frustrated that ABC would give her a platform that could ostensibly lead to more discussion about the myth that vaccines cause autism.

The Panic Virus is about much more than the vaccine vs. autism ‘controversy.’ It’s about science – the scientific method, the meaning of ‘theory’ in a scientific context, the fear of the unknown, the rights of the individual, and what we owe to each other. Mr. Mnookin doesn’t spend more than a chapter on Jenny McCarthy (although it is a fascinating one – did you know she was an indigo mom?), and Andrew Wakefield of course features but is not the main player. Science and families compete for the stage as Mr. Mnookin expertly weaves together the history of vaccine fear with the benefits of vaccines and the devastation of autism with the fatal consequences of pertussis on a baby too young to be vaccinated.

These two areas of focus fascinated me as I took this book in. What do parents owe their children – a vaccine against a disease few people have seen in recent years? A ‘better’ chance of not developing autism? What do community members owe to each other – helping to build the herd immunity if possible? Trusting science when it has repeatedly shown the lack of widespread harm of something?

I am not a parent. I am also not a scholar of vaccine history. I am, however, someone who appreciates science, and this book has laid out some of the amazing history of vaccines (including some moments that were extraordinarily poorly handled). It deals with the fact that some children are injured by vaccines, but not on the scale or in the ways that most folks who oppose vaccines claim. When a child with autism is shown with the distraught parents who argue that their child was a happy, perfect baby until immediately after he or she received the MMR vaccine, it’s hard not to empathize. The ‘one child injured by vaccines is one too many’ argument is pretty tough to accept, however, when one looks both at the STRONG evidence that vaccines do not cause the harm these parents claim coupled with the very clear reality that those who either cannot be vaccinated or who do not build immunity from the vaccine are at a real risk from those who refuse vaccines.

The politics of the different autism organizations, the piss poor media coverage, and the celebrity focus are all fascinating, but I was more intrigued by the broader debate over what we owe to each other. Can I be a good citizen if, knowing full well that I can get vaccinated, I choose not to, and then pass pertussis on to a friend’s baby who isn’t old enough to get the vaccine? Is there an obligation to act in the interest of others when the risk to yourself (or your child) is so much less than the risk to the community?

I highly recommend this book. It’s not horribly long, it’s interesting, it’s infuriating, and it’s an important topic to know and understand.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 40: Bonk by Mary Roach

Goodreads: “The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.

Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of ‘The New Yorker’), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women or, for that matter, pandas?

In ‘Bonk’, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.”

It’s hard for me to critique nonfiction in all of my usual ways, so I’ll just say firstly that I immediately took to Roach’s writing style here, which is humorous and engaging. I think she does a great job of interpreting the data and results and translating them to a less scientific audience, and I was amused by her anecdotes of how she had to participate in some studies in order to get any kind of access to the equipment that was used.

There are some cringey passages, which aren’t Roach’s fault so much as she’s just dutifully reporting some rather cringey experiments (both official and not.) I’d absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has curiosity on the subject, with the caveat that there will probably be at least one or two things she discusses that will squick you out. Otherwise, I definitely learned a few things and enjoyed Roach’s presentation.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #24: Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

You guys. YOU GUYS. This book is amazing. I started reading it Sunday morning. Now it’s Monday night, and I’ve finished all 258 pages, and I’m sad that it’s over.

I found out about this book thanks to Cannonball Reader Mei-Lu, and picked up a copy on that same trip to Powell’s that netted me an okay and a good book (so far – more reviews to come). As a background, I do have about two years of graduate-level statistics training, and took a philosophy of science class that focused exclusively on evidence, objectivity, and how that all interacts with policy, and I still found things in this book that I’d not been exposed to before. Frankly, I’d love to see it be required reading for freshman in college (or seniors in high school) to help them become better informed citizens.

The book is extraordinarily well written. At times Dr. Goldacre sounds a bit arrogant, but that’s really only relevant if that’s something you find it difficult to get past, which in this case I did not. What is more relevant is that he has great information, strong examples to illustrate his points, and an overall way with words that makes this book feel more like an outstanding novel than a science non-fiction. It reminded me a bit of Mary Roach’s works, which makes sense – she even provided a supporting blurb for the back of the copy I purchased.

The biggest point I took away from this reading is frustration that the people we expect to be providing good information to us often aren’t. And that isn’t just the scientists (or I guess “scientists”) engaging in all manner of deceit to bend data their way; it’s the newspapers and members of the media who either choose not to engage in serious examination of the data and papers themselves, or frame the issue in ways not supported by the evidence. Not everyone has time to read through all the supporting evidence on an issue; that’s why we have the scientists and the science reporters (or sadly, the general reporters tasked with reporting on science issues). When one or more of those folks aren’t providing good information, or willing to do their jobs, those of us who rely on them are taking a huge gamble.

Please check this book out. I’m so glad I purchased a hard copy of it; I can tell I’ll be re-reading it and referencing it a lot in the future.

Lollygagger’s CBR5 Review #23: Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet by Kendra Pierre-Louis

This is another book I picked up at Powell’s knowing nothing about it because it looked interesting. Lucky for me, this one was both a quick read (even at 200 pages with many references to scientific studies) and well-organized. I feared it would make me feel a bit hopeless and pessimistic, especially given the way the author chose to approach the topic (more below), but in the end it left me feeling like I did have the tools to make a positive difference in my impact on the environment.

The basic premise of Ms. Pierre-Louis’s book is that saving and protecting our environment isn’t a matter of plastic water bottles vs. reusable water bottles; it’s about drinking from the tap in a glass. Explored through a series of “you thought that was good but here’s why it isn’t” example, the first half of the book focuses on the sort of false dichotomies that we have set up for ourselves (often with good intentions) to make ourselves feel like we’re making good choices for ourselves AND the planet.

This first half focuses on fashion, food choices (although not the choice to eat or not eat animal products, which is a glaring omission), cleaning products, cars, water, and buildings. The water chapter is especially fascinating, as she starts out telling the story of a group of people native to Brazil, which I assumed would be used to frame why plastic water bottles are bad. Instead, the purpose of their story is to point out how the process of creating those reusable aluminum water bottles is destroying their environment. Whoops.

The car chapter is especially interesting, as the author points out that the biggest problems with cars aren’t their fuel economy – the biggest problems are the energy that goes into making them and the energy that goes into laying roads for people to drive on. There isn’t enough time spent here on the realities that so many people cannot give up their cars due to being forced to live far from where they work in areas without public transportation; the author gives off the impression that the choice is either car or public transit but doesn’t spend a lot of time on the fact that public transit isn’t an option for a whole lot of people. I don’t think that was an intentional omission; I think it’s just not a topic she chose to spend much time on, and I do think the chapter suffers a bit for that.

After a (mostly) thorough discussion of the problems of these false dichotomies of green vs. not green (because the green version is often just as bad or nearly as bad, just in different ways), Ms. Pierre-Louis moves to a discussion of fuel. She properly eviscerates the absurd “clean coal” concept before taking on biofuel – questionable at best given the fact that a shift from food-producing crops to fuel-producing crops both hurts world food supplies AND is often quite inefficient – and other energy alternatives. It’s an interesting look, and while I am not an expert in environmental writing, she does provide what appears to be independent support for her observations.

Finally, she spends the last quarter of the book focusing on how she suggests we address this problem. The basic conclusion is that we shouldn’t be focusing our economy on GROWTH, because that requires us to produce more and consume more every year. Instead, she spends a lot of time on the ‘steady state economy’ concept – something I’ll definitely be researching. For her (and clearly many others), the economy should be in support of the environment – the environment should not just be another component of the economy. As the author points out “We’ve become so focused on the economic system that we’ve forgotten that it’s dependent on the planet.”

I liked this book, but it does have some issues. In the last, seemingly tacked-on chapter, she looks to a ‘happiness index’ instead of GDP as a measure of a nation. In theory this is an awesome idea, but my inital look at the current state of Gross National Happiness makes me extremely wary that it can be easily manipulated to support one view of what is a ‘good life’ over another. I realize that the author was likely forced to make a choice about what to focus on, but I think that given her strong talent for writing, she could have added another fifty pages, really focused on these proposed solutions, and still had a book that people could easily read and process. In spite of that I do recommend it, especially for the first 180 pages.

Lollygagger’s CBR5 Review #22: Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

I should know better than to ever go into Powell’s without a firm agreement with myself that I will NOT buy any books that aren’t already on my Goodreads list. I mean, I’ve got 138 waiting for me – do I REALLY need to walk up and down the aisles of this massive indie bookstore, pulling off books that catch my eye?

Yes, yes I do. Unfortunately, I wish I hadn’t picked up this one.

Subtitled “How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book purports to explore why the lack of interest in or understanding of science is a threat to the U.S. While I appreciate the sentiment, there were a few negative things that really stood out to me as I read this book, resulting in a pretty low rating.

First, this book was published in 2009, and spends a good part discussing how scientists need to be better versed in how to discuss their findings and research with the media. Better communications training for all scientists is one of their main solutions to the problem referenced in the title, and overall it’s a good one. They point to Carl Sagan as a great scientist who the average person trusted and was interested in learning from; they also point out that he was essentially shunned by “serious” scientists. That’s a problem and needs to be fixed. However, one of the author’s biggest concerns is that we don’t have anyone like that these days.

Say what? Has he never heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson? That man is amazing. He got The Daily Show to (for the day at least) fix their opening credits so the world spins the right way. He got James Cameron to FIX THE SKY when he released the anniversary print of Titanic. This is a man people know, a man who is trying to bridge the unnecessary gap between science and policy, and he’s not even mentioned in the book. That alone gives me pause.

Second, the book has a disturbing chapter called “The New Atheists” that seeks to vilify PZ Meyers, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Now, I don’t know much about Meyers, and I know that Sam Harris seems to be EXTREMELY islamophobic, and Richard Dawkins seems to be quite misogynistic. However, those were not the issues these authors had. They attempt to make the case that atheists like them, who suggest that religion today is incompatible with reason, are making the situation worse. I actually get the argument they are trying to make, but they make it so poorly that it’s a bit challenging to get on their side.

Additionally, while I see they have a larger goal in mind, they also seem to be doing the ‘give both sides equal time” thing they eviscerate just a few chapters earlier when discussing climate change. As an atheist (of the ‘there’s no evidence for a diving being now but if you gave me some obviously I’d change my mind’ variety) I am clearly more prone to sensitivity around discussions of this nature, so it is possible that I am either misreading that section or just disagree, but either way it left me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, while the title was clear enough to me that this was about the specific problem of science literacy in America, the nationalist undertones were ever-present and unsettling. I’d like to see the discussion about why it’s important for people to understand science and find it interesting from a policy perspective without ending the chapter with “BECAUSE AMERICA NUMBER ONE!!!!1!1!!” I take issue with the U.S. not fostering financial support around issues like climate change, but not because we are the best yay U.S.A.! There seem to be constant appeals to that competitive, egotistical spirit in a lot of the promotion of the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math), often to the detriment of the humanities, which ironically these authors correctly point out are a necessary part of even science education. A focus on why this is a problem in our country without the ‘because WIN’ argument would be refreshing.

I appreciate (to a degree) what these authors were going for, but I think they missed the mark. The book was certainly an easy read (and very short, and only 130 pages of text with an additional 100 or so pages of references), and well written, but the arguments left me wanting something better.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #54: Gulp by Mary Roach

gulpWhen I read Packing for Mars two years ago, I was very vocal about how my favorite chapter was her detailed exploration of pooping in outer space*, so it was with much excitement that I realized her next book, Gulp (subtitled Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) was about the science of eating, digesting, and yes, excreting. Maybe you think that’s gross, and if so, to you I say THIS.

*Seriously, if you’re not going to read the whole book, at least read that chapter. She includes a transcript where astronauts see one of their turds floating around, and they’re all, ‘It’s not mine!’ ‘Mine was more gooey!’ ‘Mine looked like a snake!’ or something like that. It’s amazing.

I did indeed learn way more about pooping (and not pooping) in Gulp than I had bargained for. I also learned about saliva and parasites and exploding stomachs and how smelling is more important to eating than tasting and how Elvis was really killed by his colon (Roach has great personal interviews with experts that accompany each of these things, including one with Elvis’ doctor). Also: how some people think the dragon myth was started because of cavemen kicking snake corpses close to a fire, which might have caused the explosion of other dead animals being digested inside the snake, releasing a gas that then burst into flames out of the snake’s mouth (this was in one of the chapters about the science of farting — yes there is more than one). Also also: poop transplants are a real thing.

Actually, I want to talk about that poop transplant thing some more because I think it’s the perfect example of what Mary Roach is all about. Poop transplanting — or as it’s known in the medical community, fecal transplantation — is actually a really beneficial procedure, although it sounds majorly disgusting. The human colon is a veritable colony of bacteria, most of it beneficial to our digestion and immune systems. When that balance is upset by something, like a large dose of antibiotics for example, or if a person is born without certain bacteria (fun fact: babies get most of their bacteria from their mother at birth) diseases or disorders can result. The example she uses is the common bacteria c. diff, which in the case of the patient she observes, has taken over his colon due to an absence of other more important bacterias. Poor guy’s had basically nothing but diarrhea for YEARS. But after his fecal transplant? The proper ratio of bacteria is re-established and his digestive problems are cured in a matter of days.

And yet, as Roach is careful to note, the medical community does not take this procedure seriously, in large part due to the taboo surrounding its subject matter. No insurance company yet recognizes the treatment as valid, and it’s extremely hard for doctors and scientists to get funding. Also a factor is that drug companies do not enjoy the idea of a procedure that does not involve drugs, and that in fact, removes the possibility entirely that drugs will be needed by patients in the future. But Mary Roach loves this stuff, the stuff nobody wants to think about, and she loves the people who spend their lives asking questions and doing weird experiments just like this one, because she understands that we need people like the guy who invented poop transplants to think outside the box. If they’re not doing it, who the hell will?

I suppose it will be another two years before we get the next Mary Roach book, but I’m willing to wait if she’s willing to keep writing books like this one.