a librarian’s guide to choosing the best diet books

I love to read diet books the way I used to love to watch The Biggest Loser: it’s a sick, harmful thing to do and it makes me complicit in a system of shaming, policing, and encouraging a certain kind of lifestyle based entirely on capitalism, not wellbeing. (Especially the show.) It is truly a distasteful thing to do. And I swear I’m going to stop. At least The Biggest Loser. No more of that. Don’t watch that show. Don’t watch it because your health will be better if you stop, and because if it loses ratings, it will stop encouraging bad habits for its audience (their food advice especially is based on decades-old misinformation) and stop ruining the lives of its vulnerable contestants, who deserve real health.

At the end of 2010, an osteopath suggested that my myriad health problems (you may find this TMI, but….constant gas, indigestion, suppressed immune system, halitosis, Candida, a rash that didn’t respond to eczema treatment, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, weight gain, depression and a feeling of air bubbles popping inside my intestines daily) would be solved by eliminating gluten from my diet. Soon after, another doctor told me that eliminating processed soy and all dairy would make me feel amazing. I was fairly willing to take this advice, but as I say often, nothing is real to me if I haven’t read a book about it. [This is likely linked to my obsessive compulsive anxiety, not just my love of reading, but whatever. It has served me well more times than it has disrupted my life – thought it has done that too.]

A good friend of mine recommended a book she had liked, Good Calories, Bad Calories. I thought it sounded sillypants and that I would kind of hateread it, but instead, I found it chock full of cited research, from scientific articles to news to transcripts of congressional hearings and beyond. This isn’t a review of that book but rather the book that taught me, a few months before I went to library school, how important it is to have information literacy and not just plain old literacy.

If you don’t want to read diet books, don’t start. If you do, consider this: there is a difference between “dieting” and having “a diet,” and you should try to frame your thinking around the latter, not the former. Dieting is an action, and plenty of research indicates that it’s a worthless, cyclical pursuit that invariably leads to gaining the weight you lost and losing steam, motivation, and self esteem.

On the other hand, keeping to A Diet can mean all kinds of things. It can mean that your diet doesn’t include this or that because you’re allergic or because it gives you tummy problems. It could mean that you make your biggest meal lunch because you find it gives you energy or that you prefer lots of tiny meals throughout the day. It could mean that you feel like not eating animal products is the ethical way to live. It could mean that you try to make your meals revolve around food you grow or raise yourself. It can mean whatever the fuck you want it to mean. It could mean that you are adding this or that food because you found you were deficient in this or that vitamin. But whatever it is, it should mean that it’s an ongoing thing (acknowledging that things ebb and flow and change) and a lifestyle, not a thing you do for a specific amount of time for a drastic result.

So, as I noted, these medical professionals suggested A Diet, not that I Go On A Diet. And so I tried it, but not before going to the library and getting the book Amanda suggested. And also The Idiot’s Guide to Eating Gluten-free. And some cookbooks. And the original paleo book. And on and on. I wanted to read about fucking everything. It was kind of like how Aziz Ansari describes researching 800 restaurants and wasting three hours before going out to eat, except I do it with life changes and books.

Anyway, let’s get back to the information literacy thing. One thing that made reading the book less than enjoyable but ultimately more useful than some other books was the copious amount of footnotes and endnotes and the very long works cited page.

I hope you learned this from your librarian when you were in school, and if you didn’t, I hope now you can see how important it is that all schools have librarians: any scholar or writer worth his/her/zur salt who is writing an argumentative essay or opinion piece uses the work of their colleagues, predecessors, and/or dissenters to underscore their points and substantiate their theses. They do literature reviews. They highlight and annotate what they read. They use those to prove that the things they prevent as fact are, in fact, facts (heh) and to show that they are contributing to a body of research about the same or similar things. What’s more, if they are good writers, they integrate this research into compelling, digestible prose.

I’m not saying they are infallible; I am saying that if you are trying to determine which diet book on the shelf is more likely to be worthwhile, flip to the back and see how many pages of notes and references they have. If the book has none at all, put it back on the shelf and walk away. If it has a lot, the reading experience may not be fun, exactly, but again, if your librarian and teachers did their jobs, you should be able to read the writer’s words and the quotes they pull and begin to assess bias (note: there is no such thing as “unbiased writing;” it is your job to find multiple points of bias and come up with your most objective [ha! you are not objective, ever] conclusion, and your librarian can help you with that) and use the author’s conclusions to come to your own as far as how much they have convinced you.

Diet books are not gospel. But good ones do their homework.

tl;dr: the more references, citations, notes, and appendices a book has, the more likely it is to be based in real science. The more likely it’s based in real science, the more likely it’s a good choice for you. Science is cool like that.

Silly pro tip: I have found that the books with the best research have the goofiest titles. And they’re the ones I base many of my lifestyle choices on today. See below.

MENTIONED:
Good Calories, Bad Calories is by Gary Taubes
This is what I said about it on goodreads after I finished it.
Buy it on Amazon | IndieBound | iTunes | iBooks

Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? by Alex Hutchinson
I’m going to go ahead and call this one an essential reference text.
Buy it on Amazon | IndieBound | iBooks

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