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

reading running culture

Nothing is real unless I’ve read a book about it. So when I woke up in early January of 2014 and had this random thought that I wanted to run a 5K, I still didn’t really want to run it until I read a book about how to run. There are many ways to learn, from kinesthetic to aural and on and on, but with many things, I can’t really comprehend their relationship to my own life or my self unless I read it.

So I did one audiobook and one print book (plus an issue of Runner’s World), and then I talked to two of the fitness teachers at the school I worked at for advice. THEN I cross trained and only actually trained like three times, and then I ran (with a little walking) the 5K. Aside from trying to catch the train a few times, I didn’t run again until a Precision Running class at Equinox more than a year later. And I only went to that once until I ended up moving back to Arizona, where there is no Equinox because we don’t get fancy stuff until they’re not trendy anymore.

I don’t like running. I find it boring, even though I’ve tried it inside and outside, even though I’ve done it with television, with a podcast, with music, and with nothing extraneous at all. I don’t like it.

After I did the 5K and the Precision Running class, I still didn’t run. Then I started working at LA Fitness and made two cycling instructor friends who convinced me to do a 10K obstacle course in October, which was a week away when they told me about it, and very expensive, so as soon as I signed up, I had to be committed. I thought I would be terrible, but it turns out that when you do cycling five times a week, you are actually somewhat prepared to do other cardiovascular activity without totally falling apart. Especially when a) every time it gets boring, you get to climb a thing or splash in a thing or throw a thing, and I like that type of stuff; and b) you’re running on dirt and sand in the desert instead of concrete or something horrible for your knees. It was a blast.

Then I stopped running again. But I have enough friends who run that I really wanted to break through and figure out why any of them liked it, so I kept considering taking it up. Runner’s high is a compelling idea, because as much as cycling (especially in Tucson because of weather) is a similarly intense, in-group subculture that makes you very fit, I never hear anyone talk about it in that sense. Running is free, apparently good for you, and can be done everywhere, so I think it’s a good skill to have in your back pocket. I slowly began to read more about running, as I am wont to do, and eventually found a copy of Women’s Running at the used bookstore and bought it.

That’s what did it for me. I really liked that it was a glossy, mainstream-looking magazine dedicated exclusively to women (really just cis women, and I will have another Saturday essay on the positive and negative aspects of women-only spaces that don’t acknowledge gender as a spectrum, so bear with me now. I’m a cis lady and I feel really safe in spaces that are dedicated to nurturing ME, but I know there is a host of problems with that). I found a discount code and immediately subscribed, and now I own three entire issues of it.

Behold 3 covers of the magazine

Behold

It’s not like there’s anything new to pointing out that mainstream women’s magazines really only put one type of woman in the cover, so this has really stood out to me. That image on the back right is of a girl who is Latina. On the left is the first one I received in the mail, and it’s a black woman who, upon closer inspection, is a co-star of Sleepy Hollow, a sci-fi show with two black women on it, which is its own amazing. And front and center is the latest issue, which has a fat girl on it.

I tweeted about this right away because I was so excited. It is really amazing. But looking at it more closely, it is important to note that it’s semi-progressive while still adhering to some cultural standards we have for bodies and people who are not white and slim. Left cover? Black. No mention of how she’s famous until you read the feature inside. Slim and wearing a crop top.

The fat cover? Clearly larger than most cover models, but also far from really fat, and she’s white. Because you can only be one marginalized thing according to culture, not two. Just as we erase queer people of color from discussions of gay rights or non-Latinx people from discussions of immigration or or or, these covers still only take down one stereotype at a time. And the fat cover, it’s important to notice, shouts that it’s aware that it’s a Fat Person Cover by putting in large words the fact that there is a feature article on body positivity and acceptance.

I am all for body positivity and acceptance, or else I wouldn’t be a (not fat, and I don’t want to appropriate, only be an ally, as well as unpack my own non-mainstream-society-conforming body parts) co-founder of a blog about size acceptance. But making it the reason for the cover model they chose is still situating it firmly in mainstream values and keeping it from being just another cover, in the same way that discussions of diversity still reinforce whiteness, heteronormativity, etc by avoiding discussions of privilege or use of the words “equity” and “justice.”

But still. Are these major milestones to celebrate? Fuck yeah. This magazine is what has made me go running for my own personal enjoyment twice in the last month and what has made the 30-minute treadmill portion of Orange Theory no thang. Do I like that a magazine like this is for everyone but also for me, rather than the majority of articles in, say, Runner’s World, which are for “people” and maybe for women? Again, fuck yeah.

So if you want to take up running or already do run but want a magazine, and you identify as a lady, this one should really be your choice.