No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Corn and stress

Posted by Ben on Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A two-fer review today. I’m working on another link-laden post as well (and trust me, it will be packed), but since I finally finished these books, I figured I’d better talk about them while they’re a little better than lukewarm in my mind. I’ll say upfront that there are only two “not-so-good things” listed for each book. I really tried to find three, but I had trouble coming up with just two for each, so take that for what it’s worth.


Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Tagline: A natural history of four meals
Author: Michael Pollan (also: In Defense of Food)
Retail: $16.00

My thoughts: A New York Times bestseller published in 2006, this only recently appeared on my reading radar as I try to get my diet to as simple and close to its source(s) as possible. It’s no huge stretch to imagine the scope and reach of industrialized agriculture—fast food, frozen dinners, Twinkies, grain shipments as part of humanitarian aid packages, and so on. No problem, right? This industry is a testament to the power and creativity of human ingenuity and technology, right? Eh, sort of. When does food stop being food and instead become commodity (read: oh, about 10,000 years ago)? What does this mean for food’s composition (read: we literally eat petroleum)? What does the industrialization of our diets do to our bodies (read: the obesity epidemic isn’t completely an accident)? You’ll be surprised to find out how fast and loose the Food and Drug Administration plays with food labels and labeling, and just how bad a lot of good-for-you stuff really is. As I read through the book, connections to food and other problems kept firing off: obesity, diabetes, pollution (far greater than that produced by vehicles), the link between skyrocketing food and fuel prices, and so on, all of which makes me want to go back and re-read with pen and paper at the ready, just to make sure I keep all my thoughts straight. Let’s just say that I’m more than itching to buy my own house so as to start a substantial garden and compost pile (note: if done correctly, compost doesn’t stink).

Three good things: easy-to-read storytelling style, topic (c’mon, it’s food, what’s not to like?), good explanations of the true costs of various meals.

Two not-so-good things: possibly suspect sensationalism (he’s a journalist selling a book, after all), genre (I didn’t know this was a horror/suspense thriller when I started) :)

My opinion: I can’t encourage you enough: you owe it to yourself to read this book. If you have kids, you have an even greater duty to read and incorporate this book’s information into your and their diets. Yes, it may seem relatively expensive, but food is an investment in the future—spend more now, spend less later. We bargain-shop for clothes, fuel, hi-def TVs, et cetera, but food is the single most basic element of life. Food is what makes us what—and to a large extent, who—we are. It’s one thing to scrimp on an oil change, but as we are what we eat, cheap food makes for a cheap and ultimately breakdown-prone body.


Title: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (3rd ed)
Tagline: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping
Author: Robert M. Sapolsky (also: A Primate’s Memoir)
Retail: $18.00

My thoughts: In studying for my CSCS certification, the one subject that keeps giving me a brain cramp is endocrinology, the study of the form and function of the body’s hormones and other regulatory mechanisms. On a recommendation in Lyle McDonald’s blog, I decided to give this a read considering my growing interest in the physiological effects of psychological phenomena (spawned by my qigong introduction back in the spring). This will absolutely be a re-read for me, not because I didn’t understand what what written, but because I understood so well that, like Omnivore, I want to have a pen and paper handy to take an insane amount of notes. Folks, during and after reading this book, I—that’d be me—have at least an elementary grasp of endocrinology, specifically in the realm of stress, whether real or perceived (ultimately, it’s all the same in humans). I will say it’s a dense read, but that’s mostly due to getting familiar with the jargon (Sapolsky does a brilliant job of reminding you of stuff you’ve already read to prime your mind for a relevant upcoming topic) as well as the sheer amount of information, but when you finish, you’ll have a much better understanding of how stress affects different areas of life (metabolism *ahem*, reproduction, aging, pain, etc), how to recognize what might be affecting your own life, and how to start addressing those issues. This is not a self-help book, by the way; it’s very much a scholarly text written in a very down-to-earth, sometimes snarky style that makes it a pleasure to read.

Three good things: casual and easy-to-understand writing style that makes a very complex subject easily accessible, wide range of topics affected by stress (read: everything) and suggested coping methods, copious footnotes and endnotes for both anecdotal and further scholarly reading.

Two not-so-good things: possibly depressed feeling (tongue-in-cheek) by the time you get to the last chapter (coping), the suggestion that aerobic exercise (think “cardio,” short- to medium-distance running, etc) is healthier than anaerobic exercise (think weightlifting, sprinting, etc).

My opinion: It may take a few weeks, but read. this. book. Especially if you feel stressed more than occasionally or if you consider yourself to be Type-A (misnomer). As Lyle said, “for anybody who is interested in this topic, I would highly, highly, highly recommend” this book (he goes further by suggesting any book by Sapolsky, and if this book is any indication of his others, I have to agree). It’s dense, it’s heavy, it’s packed, and it’s good. Just take your time and maybe some notes, but you’ll come out on the other side with a much better understanding of why we feel and react like we do to all sorts of stressors.


Now, with the individual reviews done (and trust me, they are completely glossing over and nowhere near comprehensive), let me add the caveat that I read these books back-to-back, meaning I read Zebras in the context of having Omnivore freshly in my mind, which gave rise to a whole host of connections, WTFs, and ah-ha! moments. While a vast majority of stress in humans is psychological in nature (at least to begin with), a fair amount is physical, not only as a result of psychology but also as a result of lifestyle basics. Yes, I mean food. Zebras makes a point early on about how the human body is not in a condition of homeostasis, but rather in allostatis:

The original conception of homeostasis was grounded in two ideas. First, there is a single optimal level, number, amount for any given measure in the body. But that can’t be true—after all, the ideal blood pressure when you’re sleeping is likely to be different than when you’re ski jumping… The second idea in homeostasis is that you reach that ideal point through some local regulatory mechanism, whereas allostasis recognizes that any given set point can be regulated in a zillion different ways, each with its own consequences.

Sounds like the food industry could learn something from psychology. Sure, there’s an abundance of food in this country, but when it’s primarily based on corn, that means the carbon structure in corn supplants the carbon structure found in other foods that our bodies have evolved to better process. A few more steps in logic and cause-and-effect, and *BOOM* there’s your obesity epidemic. When I get back around to doing the whole notetaking re-read on both of these, I’ll try to come up with something substantive to post here, but I wouldn’t look for it for at least a year. I have to concentrate on CSCS (and other) reading as well as completely abandon reality for a bit and finally read Ender’s Game :)


One Response to “Corn and stress”

  1. Brianne said

    I’m so glad you posted this review! Omnivore’s Dilemma is on my list of all-time favorite books, but I have not yet read Zebras. After what you had to say about it, I’ll definitely be checking it out. Thanks!

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