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.
Re: basic cooking skills and stocking a kitchen: Some cookbooks actually do help with this! One of the best resources for a very beginning cook is The Joy of Cooking, which contains pages of detailed illustrations about how to do very basic kitchen tasks. It also has substantial sections on how to select high-quality produce and meats, and various other forms of kitchen-related advice you’re looking for. I’d definitely recommend checking it out. (Full disclosure, I haven’t used it much in years because I’m a more advanced cook at this point, but I did look at it a fair bit when I got it as a gift upon graduating high school.)
My belief is that most people who claim to be able to do this in full generality are lying. Our bodies evolved in an environment that is totally different from the current one, and processed foods are optimized for tricking them into believing that the food you’re eating is good. The biggest thing you can learn to do more “intuitively” is pay attention to whether you are hungry or not. To some extent, though, this is also manipulated by processed foods, which are designed to trick your sense of hunger—see e.g. https://www.stephanguyenet.com/ for more documentation/evidence on this (I’d also recommend his book The Hungry Brain for a general model of how this works, though not much specific advice). The reason “processed foods” are worse for you is generally because of this process of technical optimization for anti-your-goals, performed by many expert food scientists to try to get you to pay more for food. A rule of thumb that flows out of this is that non-processed foods are better for you because they are poorly optimized.
This one you can answer via checking yourself regularly for dehydration symptoms, which include: dizziness, lightheadedness, blacking out when you stand up, headaches, or feeling thirsty. You’re more likely to have problems with this if you have low blood pressure in general. If you notice these symptoms, you probably need to drink more water as well as consume more electrolytes. Most people don’t drink as much as water as they should, so by default that’s more likely to be a problem than not getting enough electrolytes.
I like the attitude promoted by Reinhard on his websites, including http://nosdiet.com/. His general attitude is that the most important thing for diet/exercise/lifestyle change in general is to make things as sustainable as possible. Focus on making better habits that work with your life, rather than an optimal diet that you’ll never stick to.
Hope this is helpful! I think Reinhard + Joy of Cooking gets a lot of what you’re looking for.
These are probably both smaller problems than you’d expect unless you have unusual circumstances (like living near a forest with bears, or in an apartment building with individual trash cans near the front doors).
Trash that’s kept in a trash can in your house will smell worse for several reasons:
There’s much less air exchange inside of a house vs outside, so the smell doesn’t dilute well
Since you’ll tie up the top of the trash bag before putting it out, and then cover it with a lid, there’s a smaller opening for smells to seep out of (vs the big opening bag opening and frequently uncovered indoor trash cans)
You probably spend a lot more time right next to the trash can in your kitchen than the one outside
Even the “tie up the bag and put it in a can with a lid” method works well enough that the trash can in my garage doesn’t bother me at all even though it doesn’t get much air exchange.
Most likely your neighbors won’t even notice, and it’s completely normal to put your trash out either way.
If you do have animal problems, there’s probably trash cans that are harder for them to get into but I don’t have specific experience with that.
I’ve been thinking about it, and I guess I was just confused and not thinking for myself about the problem. I’m still deeply confused about why anyone would keep trash in the kitchen. I’ve never encountered anyone who doesn’t keep trash in the kitchen, but maybe everyone is just wrong. I’m always going to keep trash outside from now on.
There’s sort of answers deep in this thread but I want to answer directly.
Large amounts of food in your kitchen trash will definitely smell bad and should be tied up and taken outside immediately if you don’t want your kitchen (or entire house in some cases) to smell bad, but in general I think most people don’t have large amounts of food in their kitchen trash can most of the time.
Also note that as you get better at cooking, the parts that smell the worst when they go bad (high water and starch content) are usually the parts you eat, and you throw away the parts that don’t smell (dry parts like the papery part of an onion or the dry ends of asparagus).
My heuristic is that I take trash out immediately if I’m cleaning out my fridge or pantry, but I usually don’t take it out immediately after cooking (unless I’m doing something like peeling 20 potatoes).
So I think the answer to your confusion is that most people either don’t cook from scratch at all (and have nothing smelly in their trash) or have been cooking for a long time (and don’t frequently throw out large amounts of smelly ingredients), and you’re just in the annoying middle part and it will get better as you get more experience.
Why would anyone not? I have a plastic bin in my kitchen, into which food waste, food wrappings, and any other noxious trash goes. It has a lid and is lined with a bin-liner. When full, which takes about a week, I tie off the neck of the bin-liner and dump it (along with the accumulated non-noxious waste from the wastebaskets around my house) in the big plastic council-supplied bin outside my back door. The rubbish collectors collect it every two weeks. All this is standard practice. There are no smells.
There are smells to me. In my experience, the lids never do their jobs, and anyway, you have to open the lid to put more trash in. I guess I’m just much more sensitive to the smell?
I have a very sensitive nose and totally get where you’re coming from. I have a metal garbage can with an odor filter on the inside*, so the smell doesn’t escape unless and until I open the lid. The lingering smell after opening the lid still sometimes bothers me enough that I decide to take the bag outside, especially if I’ve recently thrown away animal products (which luckily for me isn’t that often).
*The brand I have is iTouchless, but presumably there are other brands that are metal and have odor filters without the expensive electronic lid
I have the same problem. Often, if I have food scraps I expect will smell bad, I put it into a gallon-sized ziplock bag, then close that, then put that in the trash, which I find helps (and is less gross to me than taking the whole bag of trash outside then having to replace the bin liner more frequently).
Btw, where’s all this waste food coming from? When I cook, I cook what I am going to eat. There are no leftovers. The only waste is stuff like apple cores, coffee grounds, and the paper towels I wipe pans and dishes with before washing up.
The food waste is an entire cooked meal that I didn’t want to eat. Usually when this happened, the smell was bad from the outset, and also reminded me of my failure, which made me even less want to cook.
Nowadays since I’m a better cook, this happens less often, but I still end up buying food that spoils before I cook/eat it, or I cook too much, because while I’ve gotten decent at cooking, I’m still terrible at home economics.
I usually dump it in the kitchen trash can, then take the bag out, tie it off, and put it in the big trash can that’s kept outside. Best of both worlds.
Agreed, this is what I do when I need to get rid of food. Keeping it in the house gets smelly surprisingly fast so it’s worthwhile to move them to the outside trash can quickly (even if the trash can isn’t full).
One solution to the rotting food trash situation is to keep it in a box in your freezer. You’ll still have the problem of forgetting to take it out when the trash is collected (until you make a habit of taking it out on time), but it won’t rot. It will take up room, but maybe that could help force you to make that habit of taking it out on time.
The best self-help diet book I’ve read is James Clear’s Atomic Habits. I know it’s not just a diet book, but that is maybe why it is so good. You’ve got to consider your individual habits and routines, what sort of an identity you want to have, and what sort of habits will reinforce that identity.
For most of your other questions, I haven’t read any books with answers, but this recently published one on amazon is selling very well, has good reviews, and sounds like it has some good answers. https://www.amazon.com/Lazy-Genius-Kitchen-Enjoy-Before/dp/0525653945
I’ve always loved to cook, but for a long time mostly neglected ingredient quality, and gradually gained weight. Cleaning up my diet was a gradual shift over the course of years, with a few big bursts of effort focused on improving specific aspects (most recently in January 2020, I eliminated most refined grains, refined sugar, and processed oils). I do have defined exceptions: I don’t try to apply the same standards to food I don’t make myself at home, for example. Now two years later I’m traveling full time and using a different set of grocery stores every few weeks, and a lot of times none of the products or brands I’m used to are available. I was recently in a town with only one grocery store, and it didn’t carry any lettuce or other leafy vegetables at all. So you improvise, and compromise, and do the best you can with what you’ve got. If you understand why you’re doing things a certain way (in terms of cooking technique, and meal planning strategy, and diet composition), you’ll know which rules are best to bend or break, and how much it’s worth investing in sticking to a plan. I’ve also lost 25 lbs in the six months since hitting the road, so I would say that consistent access to top-quality ingredients is not critical, but knowing how to make use of what’s available is.
On cooking technique, and substituting based on what’s available, I recommend: Anything by Alton Brown, everything by Kenji Lopez-Alt, Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” and “The Flavor Bible.” The first two, don’t worry so much about the recipes, instead look to where and how they got to the recipes. Realize there’s a whole spectrum of ways to do things, with differing levels of difficulty, and while they often push to find the best result, there’s an 80⁄20 rule level of making your own cooking life really good and relatively easy with a bit of thought and practice. On the third, it’s basically showing you the organic chemistry of what happens to food during cooking, and once you understand that, recipes stop being black boxes and start making sense. The last one is a reference book that is good for figuring out what flavors and ingredients go together, and can be substituted for each other, and is good for getting ideas to use what you’ve got to make a dish work.
On how to get good quality food: try watching Bobby Parrish/FlavCity. Not because I think you need to eat the way he says, but because he has a philosophy of eating, and puts out videos where he keeps going to different grocery stores, searches the aisles for new products, and highlights the ones that meet his standards. This includes places like Dollar General and Aldi, not just places like Whole Foods, and he makes it a point to remind people that it’s fine to use the best available, or best you can afford, and also highlights what he thinks are the best available options in categories he personally avoids. He also has a series on the least-bad options at different fast food chains, where he talks through his reasoning.
And on what to eat: for me, any diet that demands an all-or-nothing shift is unworkable. In 2017 I lost 20 lbs eating keto, and got a boost in energy and mental clarity. But after six months, a too-carby meal would give me major side effects for the rest of the day. Thanksgiving? Birthday party? Work trip? Too bad! My body couldn’t handle temporary interruptions. So I stopped, and gained most of it back, and tried other ways. Intermittent fasting doesn’t have that problem, and still gets me into ketosis for most of each day, and it’s been working for me for the past year and a half.
Lastly: planning! At the start of a week, before grocery shopping, I try to figure out what things I want to eat. Not for each specific meal. Just “I need to use up [ingredient] by [day], maybe I’ll turn it into [dish], in which case I’ll need to buy [x y z]. I’ll have time to cook on these days and not those.” Then you’ll have to adapt if [x y z aren’t available at the store, but that gets easy with practice. If I can, I lump a bunch of meal prep tasks together (like washing and cutting veggies right after I buy them for the week) to save net time and dishes. And I keep some quick-but-healthy-enough options on hand (figure out what freezes well, and what store-bought boxed or frozen meals are fairly clean and still tasty to you) for when I just don’t wanna eat what I planned, or a recipe doesn’t work out.
Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” series (both the shows and the books) have a lot of details about the why of various food/technique/taste things. And they are aimed at the kind of person who asks questions on LessWrong, so I highly recommend them.
This isn’t a direct answer to any of the questions you asked, but your post brought to mind this Tumblr post* that I recently read that made me feel better about not making fresh home-cooked meals every day, because that’s kind of an insane amount of time and energy to expect for a lot of people
(*epistemic status: it’s a Tumblr post, so for all I know it could be 100% lies)
This is kinda off topic, but I am curious about the garbage-collection situation that underlies the rotting-food problem.
Where I live in the UK, here is how it works. The local council supplies each house with some large plastic bins with hinged lids. Where I am, there are three: one for compostable things, one for recyclable things, one for everything else. Those go outside the house. Inside the house, you collect garbage in smaller quantities (in plastic bags, for non-compostable non-recyclable stuff; in paper bags, for compostable stuff) and dump them into the outdoor bins when the indoor ones fill up or when collection time approaches. People come around to empty the outdoor bins once a week (alternating between the compostable+recyclable bins and the everything-else bins, so each one gets emptied every two weeks).
This means that rotting food doesn’t have to sit around indoors. You can dump it in the outside bins as soon as it becomes annoying.
It depends on having somewhere outside where you can put those bins. If you live in a house with a driveway, they can go there. If you live in an apartment block, typically the whole building has extra-big bins into which you can chuck your garbage. (Those are usually outside, or at least in an outbuilding.) If you live in a small house with no driveway, there’s usually somewhere outside where they can go.
Garbage in the outdoor bins doesn’t bother the neighbours or attract animals because the bins have lids that close pretty securely. I guess if we had bears (which have very sensitive noses and are easily strong enough to knock the bins over and get at what’s inside) it would be an issue, but nowhere in the UK has bears and I don’t think they’re common even in the US.
Presumably your situation differs from this in important ways. Can you say a few words about how?
By way of apology for the digression, a couple of remarks about the questions at the end of the OP:
I wouldn’t expect any single book to cover all those things. Get cooking advice from cookery books and medical advice from medical books.
Cooking techniques are easier to learn when you can see someone else doing them. Have you looked on e.g. YouTube? (E.g., if you search for “sauteing” lots of videos on the subject appear. I watched a few of them; none of them seemed perfect to me, but I think someone watching a bunch of these and trying the process out for themselves would likely do pretty well.
Google tells me that there are no raccoons in the UK, so my guess is that’s the whole difference (the rest sounds pretty much exactly like how trash collection works in every US state I’ve lived in). Raccoons are everywhere in the US and can both remove garbage can lids and knock cans over to get to what’s inside.
Huh. I hadn’t realised raccoons were such a nuisance. Thanks.
Oh, and a trick re: your problem of rotten food. Take the food, put it in gallon Ziplocks in the freezer until trash day, and then throw it out. I don’t bother with this myself, but I know someone who does this with raw-meat-based trash because they also have problems with animals in their garbage.
Recently, every day when I wake up, I cut into small pieces one cucumber, a few bell peppers, and a few tomatoes, and mix it in a large bowl. It is a tasty mix that keeps being tasty during all day, even when left outside the fridge.
So whenever I feel like “I want to eat something now” i.e. no time to cook, I simply put a bit of this mix on the plate and eat it. If I want to eat something else, I put on my plate 50% of this mix, and 50% of something else: processed meat, fish, cheese, or some cooked legumes I bought in a can.
This satisfies both my laziness and my desire for good taste and some variety. It is super easy, requires zero cooking, tastes okay, and although not perfect it is very likely more healthy than what I would eat otherwise. After I prepare the mix in the morning, it requires zero additional willpower.
This is a simple solution that works for me, and only requires one habit. Actually two habits: I also need to regularly buy the ingredients. Now during summer, the vegetables are cheap. I am sure there are better solutions that this, but if nothing works for you, this may be a good idea to try.
Now about cooking… I mostly cook soups, because they are among the easiest things to cook: you put some things in water, add a little salt, and boil it for 20 minutes (beans 60 minutes in pressure cooker). Most of the time, if you cook it longer than necessary, it is still okay. The time spent cooking is annoying; I usually combine this with doing the dishes: I start cooking first, do the dishes while waiting for the water to start boiling, set the temperature to minimum that keeps the water boiling, set an alarm on my smartphone and leave the kitchen.
Another interesting alternative is to cook various vegetables in rice cooker. Cut various vegetables in pieces, add a little oil and salt, a cup of water, let the cooker cook it until all the water evaporates, then the cooker turns itself off but keep it closed for a few (or many, if you forget) more minutes. Most vegetables taste amazing this way.
I recommend Model Meals as a partial substitute for cooking.
Most people can make decent progress to a healthy diet with just a little microwaving. E.g eat more nuts, whole fruit, sweet potatoes, and occasionally a can of oysters.
>How do I execute cooking techniques like sauteing and poaching, and which techniques are important to know?
Buy “Larousse Gastronomique”. Feel free to supplement with Jacque Pepin’s “La Technique” and “La Methode”.
Larousse Gastronomique is excellent, but I would not expect what it says about sautéing or poaching to enable anyone to do those things successfully who was not previously able to. I don’t have Pépin’s books but my guess is that they would be much more helpful to someone in that situation.
You are exactly correct. Both of Pepin’s books are heavily-illustrated and provide step-by-step instructions on cooking almost anything. “Larousse” is the theory, Pepin is the practice.
you might give “How Not to Diet” a try. It has an accompanying cookbook that I found accessible.
There is an earlier book by the same author, “How Not to Die” which will dispel you of the idea that you’re not getting enough salt and electrolytes and will likely convince you that you are very likely low on micronutrients.
Both are evidence-based, focused on quality studies and provide copius citations. I was confused what qualifies as processed food, until reading those.
For the mechanics of cooking, nothing beats just goofing around in the kitchen. Hands-on, like most things, is the best way to learn. Alton Brown’s Good Eats is a great, entertaining take on hacking up a kitchen. He discusses gadgets, food science, and practice skills.
Best of luck on your nutrition, diet, cooking journey.
It seems like “How Not to Die” is pretty sketchy and frequently cherry picks or misrepresents evidence: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-not-to-die-review
That’s not really true. Get a bunch of health food, throw it into an instant pot and wait 15 minutes. The vegetables are going to be softer than they would be if you would fry them, but that’s more an issue of taste than of healthy eating.
I live in an apartment building and have my garbage can on my balcony, so that it’s smell has no effect on my flat.
To me your reasons against having your garbage outside sound like excuses. Did you actually have problems with animals or neighbors complaining about garbage being outside in garbage cans?
Processed food is essentially food that’s heavily commercially optimized for something else then being healthy. Often that means too many sugars, too much salt, food engineered to be as tasty as possible and chemical additives where we don’t really know their full effects on the body.
Tim Ferriss wrote “The 4-hour Chef” with the intention of answering that question for nerds who can’t cook.
I really doubt the average person would find the result of this palatable, and people with the willpower to force themselves to eat this probably don’t need diet advice. It’s true that you can make good meals with a relatively small amount of equipment, but making it taste good is more complicated than “throw it in an instant pot and then eat the gloop that comes out”.
Not to mention the fact that different foods have different cooking times, and if you overcook one (e.g. broccoli) you risk losing all nutritive properties.
Why do you believe that overcooking broccoli means that it loses all nutritive properties?
The main chemical compound in broccolli and other cruciferous vegetables is sulforaphane, which has various health benefits, it’s syntetized by an enzime called myrosinase which is very heat sensitive; this paper https://sci-hub.se/10.1016/j.ctrv.2010.01.002 has a table showing the different and optimal boiling temperatures.
There’s also this video where Rhonda Patrick goes in depth about this