Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reviews of Escape the Diet Trap, Eat Like a Dinosaur, and Well Fed

One of the perks of having a relatively well-read blog (here and on Psychology Today) is getting free copies of recent books that come out.  Some of them are from the Psychology Today bloggers, others from the paleosphere.  I also purchase Evolutionary Psychiatry-related books, mostly textbooks, and nowadays I can use my blog income and donations to do so, so I've about broken even with my endeavors.  The hard part comes with getting time to read these books.  It's a lot easier to make time for a 5-6 page paper or even a handful of them than to sit down and give a book the attention it deserves.  Even harder to write a detailed review.  Synopses were always my achilles heel when it came to selling my writing in the past.

First off, Escape the Diet Trap.  Dr. John Briffa is a physician in private practice in London, seen here cleaning the floor with a statin apologist on television.   Dr. Briffa was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, and he mentions my blog under the "resources" section, and he signed it for me.  

In general there is a lot to like about this book, and it begins with a nice understandable rebuttal of the diet-heart hypothesis with an evolutionary medicine-reasoned slant.  The recommended diet is low-carb paleo with lots of behavioral tips and techniques.  In addition, he recommends walking, high intensity intervals, and strength training (even giving a little routine) matched to one's basic fitness level.  It's a very reasonable, researched work that does not make any outlandish claims, and is bound to work for most people, particularly at the beginning of their fat-loss journeys.  There are easy charts that tell you what to eat and sample menus, along with testimonials.  He also introduces the concept of intermittent fasting, which is a neat diet trick and very effective for some.

The book is definitely geared toward the insulin resistant and does plug the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis for fat gain, which is my only quibble with it.  However, I think low carb is a great starting point for most people who aren't athletes or bodybuilders who have some weight to lose, for other reasons than the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis.  Going low carb (and adding the paleo restrictions) will automatically eliminate a lot of foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories.  It will also keep one out of trouble with snack foods, engineered foods (as in everything you can buy to eat at a gas station), and restaurant foods.   It will get you used to cooking and used to eating a bit more healthy fat.  I don't think super low carb is great for everyone, particularly athletes or anyone doing a lot of glycolytic work, and I don't think low carb is the end all be all, the only way to longevity, or the only optimal human diet.  I don't think glucose is poison and I'm not afraid of insulin myself.   Dr. Briffa mentions that athletes will do better with more carbs, and says "part of the problem, though, is that many of us eat like marathon runners but spend practically all our time sitting on our bums." (p. 236)  Most recreational exercisers will do fine on a moderately low carb diet, and I have no quibble with this fact.

Dr. Briffa stresses that his recommendations are not a "diet" (in fact the front cover says "this is not a diet book" in addition to the title of "Escape the Diet Trap"), and I like that focus as a lifestyle change, as the evidence is clear that you really can't ever return to your previous way of eating if it got you fat in the first place.  (I would think that is obvious, but $80 a day juice cleanses and cabbage diets are always plugged in the mass media, for sure).  He also stresses that we shouldn't consciously restrict calories (again, diets that force you to starve yourself by merely cutting calories will always fail, long term).  Portion control (using, for example, the palm of your hand as a measure for protein needs in a meal, as I've seen recommended ) and intermittent fasting are ways of backing into calorie counting without going nuts, and I'm always surprised (when I'm not cheating at all) how much volume of real food it actually takes to keep me running at full steam.

My only disagreement with the book, really, is his inclusion of white potatoes (and presumably other starchy tubers, such as cassava) in the "foods to avoid" list and the restrictions on fruit if we are considering this book a diet for the rest of one's life.  It's pretty clear that unless you cross the line of 50 grams of fructose daily (Staffan Lindeberg kept quoting the figure of 5 pineapples, which seems like nearly a physically impossible amount of sweet fruit for a non-fruitarian), your liver is well able to handle the amount in most fruit.  Going nutty with the dried fruit and fruit juice is a different story.  I think folks who have sugar-related emotional eating might to better getting rid of fruit for a time, or maybe forever, but for most it is a healthy part of the diet.  And while I object to restaurant french fries and potato chips, I simply don't see anything wrong with eating cooked potatoes (or other starchy root vegetables) as a general rule, and I think for those worried about the sustainability of the paleo diet with such a huge world population, the inclusion of potatoes will go a long way to feeding a lot of people with limited resources.

In short, I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to lose weight (especially those with a lot of weight to lose) or as a gentle introduction to a paleo-style diet (or ideally both!).  Like most paleo books, people will need a bit of education after the fact to get them away from the idea of low carb as the only option. 

Second up is the brand spanking new Eat Like a Dinosaur from the Paleo Parents.  Between them, Matt and Stacy have lost over 200 pounds and cured their children of many behavioral, skin, and hypersensitivity issues by switching to a paleo-style diet.  They sent me two copies of their book, and I am going to give one to a colleague with three small children.  

Eat Like a Dinosaur is a dairy-free, grain-free cookbook with a bit about the family, followed by a cute little children's story to help the kids understand the new way of eating, and then about a zillion recipes geared for families and a major influence on getting the kids involved with obtaining food, cooking, eating, which is great.  The recipes are mostly low carb, and use low carb flour substitutes such as almond and coconut flour.  Sweet potatoes are included, along with some desserts and sweets (using natural sugars such as maple syrup, honey, and palm sugar).

I think this book is a fabulous resource for families who have strict dietary needs, such as kids with celiac or hypersensitivities.  There are more than 150 recipes and lots of tips and tricks for snacks, making school lunches, and how to make meals fun for everyone.  The pictures aren't fantastic and there are a few typos, but those are small complaints.  I'm also wary of any recipe with coconut flour as a major ingredient (having made some horrible pancakes and muffins with it) and would probably modify some to include organic white rice flour myself, but as I rarely bake, I don't know that I will be experimenting with these anytime soon.  I know the kids would love some of the cupcake options, the icing, the smoothies, the fruit and nut bars, and other tasty treats.  There are also many, many recipes incorporating organ meats, dark green leafy vegetables, brussels sprouts, and other "adult" foods. All the low carb staple substitutes are there as well, including cauliflower rice, mashed cauliflower, almond flour pie crust, low carb cookies, etc.

My husband and I have more of a European philosophy that children should eat pretty much what adults are eating, and we really shouldn't go out of our way too much to make special foods so they will eat them.  I don't have a lot of time to make cutesy food (and I don't have four different kinds of low carb gluten-free flour on hand), but then my kids aren't really all that picky.  They care more about the plate than the food, though given the opportunity they will of course complain about most everything healthy and beg for goldfish crackers or ice cream.  However, given the popularity of books like Deceptively Delicious, there must be a lot of families out there who are desperate to find ways to surreptitiously stuff their kids with vegetables and real food.  Now I have a hard time believing that Jessica Seinfeld herself purees vegetables for an hour or two every weekend for her children, I know some parents do.  Eat Like a Dinosaur has lots of simple ways to make good food cute (like putting tuna salad in a carved out cucumber boat), and if I had the time, necessity, or motivation, I would likely utilize them.  I'm likely to dive into this book for recipes for chicken nuggets, and cakes and cookies for birthday parties, pot-lucks, and family get togethers.

Given the unmitigated garbage that is marketed and fed to kids on a daily basis (I challenge any real food-loving or paleo parent to go to any snack time in any school and not be a bit horrified by the petroleum food dye blue low fat yogurt and ubiquitous fruit juice boxes and rainbow goldfish that pass as healthy food these days) and the frankly bizzare public health message that stresses a low fat, low meat diet and high amounts of grains for kids who have such a need for lots of very nutrient-dense brain and growth foods, I certainly applaud very wholesome real food and healthy fat message of Eat Like a Dinosaur.  

I think growing, energetic kids do fine (or even better) with plenty of starchy carbs (and I do give my kids organic white rice, usually cooked in homemade stock with grassfed butter, dulse flakes,  or coconut milk and a cinnamon stick) in part to hide some of the fat in their lunch (schools are obligated to encourage you to feed low-fat, which is of course ridiculous).  My kids seem to do fine with dairy, also, and they get full fat organic milk and yogurt.  I might try to wean the older one (who is 4&1/2) off so much milk, but she seems to be doing that naturally as she ages.

In short, Eat Like a Dinosaur is perfect for kids and families who want to be strict paleo (with a ton of  baking and substitution options) and is great for getting kids who have allergies on board with the restrictions of a paleo diet.

The last book on my list is one I bought myself (though I bought it in part because the gorgeous Melissa and Dallas Hartwig gave me their Whole30 Success Guide last summer, which I thought was terrific).  Melissa Joulwan of The Clothes Make the Girl has written by far my favorite paleo cookbook, Well Fed (paleo recipes for people who love to eat).  Most of the recipes are Whole30 compliant, and every one I have tried is very tasty.  I love Well Fed because there is a big section on shopping, supplies, and making "hot plates" for ideas for eating good (mostly simple) food all the time with minimal prep (for "real food").  There are also plenty of recipes for those nights when you want to spend some time making a special meal.  So far I've made the chocolate chili, the moroccan meatballs, the meatza, and the "best" chicken and they were all terrific.  Honestly it is the best practical cookbook for eating clean (though Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals is a close second).  You aren't going to find as many sweet crowd pleasers for adult parties, but Paleo Comfort Foods has those.  

I love the Whole30 and Well Fed because I think they start where Escape the Diet Trap leaves off, with super dialed in nutrition to give you a clean starting point to see what foods you tolerate and which ones you don't.  For the most part they also meet my personal food philosophy, which is mostly simple and easy with portion control, and some special dishes.  I "cheat" more than they recommend (with chocolate, some gluten and processed foods, white potatoes, white rice, and alcohol), but when I have the Whole30 dialed in, I get lean, lean, lean.  As long as I avoid dairy, I can cheat with some impunity and I don't tend to gain, but I didn't figure that out until after I did the Whole30.  I do like the idea of purely nutrient-rich food and sugar avoidance as a starting point to clear the decks.  However, personally I don't see anything terribly wrong with a bit of white potato or white rice, particularly if you beef up the nutrition of the rice in the cooking.  (Unpolished, unfortified white rice killed the Japanese in droves with beri-beri back in the day, so no one can argue it is a super food, and if it is grown in the US it has some arsenic).

Speaking of my personal nutrition and exercise philosophy, for exercise I do Crossfit, which is somewhat controversial but works very well for me.  I have a lot of experience with weightlifting (even took a class in college), and the head trainer at my box is very experienced training beginners and athletes and has a healthy philosophy, avoiding the "sexy met-con" for the most part in exchange for lots of basic strength training and "short and sweet" WODs.  "Let's keep the cortisol under control."  He doesn't restrict the sumo deadlift high-pull which worries my friends Jamie Scott and Dallas Hartwig.  And I do have a fritzy shoulder (pre-dating Crossfit by about 18 years) so I do consciously (for the most part) take care not to push it too hard.  I think Crossfit is a great option for the experienced exerciser who has limited time and likes the motivation of an involved and enthusiastic community.  My six am box-mates will send me a facebook message if I'm not there when expected, I get a lot of personalized attention on technique and the like, and you can't really say the same thing about a normal globo-gym if you don't pay for a personal trainer.  I wouldn't go to just any Crossfit with just any trainer, however, without some experience and wisdom about your own limits. 

In the future I will do a few more book reviews.  I'll do an Evolutionary Psychology triple-header and other reviews of How to Be Sick and Harnessed.  In the mean time there are a bunch of new nutrition and mental health papers to look at, and some other larger topics to explore.  I'm also heading into another season of talks, conventions, and podcasts, so the timing for these endeavors is rather unpredictable.


  1. I looked up glycolytic but I'm still not sure I understand your point. Do you mean physically demanding jobs that burn lots of energy?

  2. @Nance, sorry, I mean exercise requiring lots of glycolytic work. High intensity with significant volume (Crossfit is a good example). Longer, low intensity exercise will burn fat.

  3. "Meal And Snack Pattern A" - this terrified me.
    In Colin Wilson's 1976 S.F. classic "The Space Vampires" a character cooks bacon and eggs, then theorises how the rate of crime and mental illness soared in the 21st century because people lost the habit of eating a nutritious breakfast late in the 20th.

  4. Great reviews! I'll be making some new purchases...

  5. Mine would be complete to make sure its effectiveness.


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