What Diet Books Don’t Teach: A book review and a request for more reading

I’ve read a fair number of self-help books in my life. I’m long past the point where I expect a book to change my life, but they often are fun to pleasure-read. As Scott Alexander notes, these books all make claims they cannot fulfill. I don’t read so many diet books because they are the worst in the category. All diet books discuss what to eat but never how to get food. The underlying advice in all diet books, which is never elucidated beyond a sentence or two, is this: Cook for yourself, don’t eat at restaurants and don’t eat ‘processed’ food. All diet books divide food into good and bad, and recently they have begun to discuss when to eat (fasting). But they all assume that you can cook for yourself, can maintain a working kitchen, and can find and afford specific ingredients like grass-fed meat, clarified ghee and kale.

I say “all” diet books, but of course I’m making this post in hopes that there is an exception which you’ll inform me of. Please do. I will talk about what I actually need from a self-help book (which might not be a ‘diet’ book per-se.) But first, I will review the book Intuitive Fasting. The other night I bought this audiobook based on the title alone. I was hoping that it would talk about how to recognize, via body-awareness, when it would be better to skip a meal than to eat. This is something I was already doing to some extent. But that’s not what Intuitive Fasting is about. The book is only partially about fasting, contains a fair amount of general wellness advice like good sleep and meditation (which I appreciate), and has zero actual advice about how to develop your body-intuition. The book focuses on a specific 4-week fasting plan, starting with fasting 12 hours a day and progressing to fasting 22 hours every other day. The author refers to this plan as “flexible.”

Intuitive Fasting is actually a keto book in disguise. The author advocates for a diet he calls ‘ketotarian’ – keto and vegetarian. I don’t recall him ever explaining why a vegetarian diet is important, but presumably he’s reacting to all the studies that say that meat is unhealthy. (He cites a lot of studies.) Later in the book, he says that eggs and pole-caught wild fish are okay. Then he talks about chicken and beef. He says that “actually meat has gotten a bad rap.” So then chicken and beef are okay? Well, as long as it’s organic and grass-fed. Basically, the diet is “Don’t eat anything an American in 1950 would eat.” He talks a lot about the importance of healthy fat, but where should we get fat? He talks about the four types of fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat), saying you should try to get so much of one and not so much of the other. But if you’re trying to go ketotarian then you are already restricted to just nuts, legumes, olive oil and ghee for your fat. Butter is off the table. Cheese is right out. (Because dairy is inflammatory, studies show.)

I can’t imagine anyone could transition from eating junk food to eating keto and vegetarian and intermittent fasting in week 1. He says that you should not try to fast seriously until you can commit to a ‘clean’ diet. Any one of these three asks alone is a hard sell to the vast majority of people, and he advocates for all three. Are there really people with metabolisms so disrupted that they need such a restrictive diet to lose weight? I think we should consider just how radical this diet is when compared to what Americans ate back in the day when metabolic health issues were rare. I think this is strong evidence against the idea that food abundance is the cause of the obesity epidemic.

It seems like this diet book is targeted at someone who has no struggle with conscientiousness and already has access to high quality food. I’m surprised that anyone who has both the money and the willpower to take all the advice would actually need the book. If kale is a taste you’ve already acquired, you’ve probably heard this guy’s ideas before from various sources. There isn’t much new here. I particularly don’t recommend this book for anyone who can’t cook, doesn’t have a working kitchen, has low conscientiousness, is a picky eater, or can’t afford high-quality organic food.

I personally find it hard to get food, because cooking and maintaining a kitchen is hard. Getting healthy food is pretty much impossible without cooking. Obviously, the solution is to learn. I’ve actually become a decent chef over the last year, but it was a hard won skill. I was not taught how to cook as a kid, and I never got a proper introduction to cooking. Cookbooks are no help, because they assume that you already know how to do things like saute or poach. I eventually learned how to cook by watching youtube videos and by trial-and-error. When I was struggling with cooking, I produced inedible meals more than half the time. I found this very frustrating and humiliating, because I had a bad attitude towards failure. When you’ve made an inedible meal, you are faced with a choice: force yourself to eat it, remain hungry, or throw it out and go get junk food.

Throwing out food is actually its own problem. Food smells, and after a few days, it starts to rot. Having rotting food in my home seems to have a negative psychological effect on me (go figure.) But, how do I get rotting food out of my home? The garbage man only comes once a week. If I leave it outside, an animal might get into it, or the neighbors might complain. If I leave it in the fridge (so that it will spoil more slowly), then I likely will forget to put it in the trash, meaning that it’s in my home for another full week. I could tediously dispose of it via the garbage disposal, but that seems wrong to me. I feel really stupid to have this problem, and I’m sure that someone will make fun of me for it in the comments.

Ultimately the real problem for me is not nutrition. The problem is low conscientiousness and a lack of home economics knowledge. No one ever properly taught me how to maintain a working kitchen. Maintaining a working kitchen requires constant cleaning and regular trips to the grocery store, along with proper utensils. I’ve learned many things via trial-and-error and in bits and pieces from various sources, but I’m still lacking some stupid basics. I tried searching “home economics” on Amazon, but I sense that the results I saw still assume some basic knowledge which I am missing. I need something very basic, and I don’t expect the descriptions and reviews to be helpful in finding that.

Here’s some questions that I’d like to see addressed in a book. (It might not be a diet book, or even a self-help book.) How should I acquire food? What counts as ‘processed’ food, and what specifically makes processed food so bad? How can I maintain a clean and well-stocked kitchen? How do I execute cooking techniques like sauteing and poaching, and which techniques are important to know? How can I listen to my body to know intuitively which foods are making me healthier, or sicker, or when it is better to fast? Am I getting enough salt and electrolytes? How can I have a positive attitude towards healthy choices, and avoid frustration?

If you know a book that can answer these questions, please let me know.