Partway through reading How Not to Die by Michael Greger and Gene Stone, which feels like a natural followup to my reading and enjoying Spring Chicken last year. Where that book provided an excellent high-level survey of our current best knowledge about human health and longevity, this book examines the same topic specifically through the lens of food.

I had originally worded that as “through the focus of food”, but that would give this book a little too much credit, as its authors’ strategy involves less focus than firehosing the reader with 400 pages of openly agenda-driven and highly hedged food knowledge. Thick with study-citations as well as unshyness over using words like “may” and “appears to”, the book doesn’t so much stand on unshakeable scientific rigor than ride a tsunami of recent evidence all pointing in essentially the same direction. That direction matches the recent but already timeless aphorism of Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The book celebrates our bodies’ amazing ability to pull nutrition out of just about anything we can chew up and swallow, while cautioning that it does not follow that every food is therefore just as good as any other. Fewer than a hundred pages in, I already see clearly the tiers its authors have set up: whole-plant foods as the best thing you can possibly eat, followed by other plant-derived matter, less fiber-rich than whole foods but still only good for you, when enjoyed in moderation.

After that, animal-derived products (“including fish and poultry”, the book asides repeatedly) pair their nutritive benefits with potentially damaging side effects. In the book’s first pages, its authors go so far as to compare eating meat once in a while to banging your shin on a low table every so often. It bruises you, but your resilient body can brush it off, no problem. But if with determination and gusto you bang your shin on the same spot three times a day for years and years, okay, you may start defeating your body’s self-mending abilities, and perhaps you should rethink things a bit.

For all this, I find the book engagingly written, and I continue to chew through its chapters — all titled after the pattern “How Not to Die from [lethal condition]”. Within the repetitiveness, I have already pulled out a satisfying amount of demystification about contemporary nutritional pop-science. For example, I have learned where antioxidants got their name, any why research suggests that eating antioxidant-rich food may be good for you. They neutralize processes that cause oxidation — rusting, essentially! — within your own tissues. Left unchecked, this oxidation releases free radicals, which accelerate aging by crashing around your cells and messing them up at the molecular level. The less of that you have going on, the better.

Well… maybe. Possibly. Have another blueberry, write Greger and Stone, careful to note every time that while we can’t conclusively prove it’ll make you live longer, for a healthy person who wants to stay healthy the practice of simply eating a lot more fruits and vegetables offers all the hope of nutritional drugs or special diets with none of the downsides.

I sat down today with the initial intent to tell you about how I make peanut-butter sandwiches, using a self-taught technique, and one which this reading makes me feel righteously justified about. But I ended up writing about this book instead, and in the interest of not too much, I’ll save that portion for later.


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