Book review: “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” by Dr Caroline Leaf

ThinkAndEatYourselfSmart_Cover_Web

Think and Eat Yourself Smart
Dr Caroline Leaf
328 pages, Published by Baker Books USA

My rating: 2 / 10

As a society, we are obsessed with food.  With copious food blogs, celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows, food has become more about our social status and self-identity than about nourishment.

Food has always been intimately connected to our health and well-being, and the modern food obsession has taken that to extreme levels as well.   Organic, paleo, sugarless, raw food, cleansing and other popular diets have morphed into ‘movements’, the polite shorthand way of describing popular obsessions that are borderline cults.

Trying to cash in on this wave of cultural orthorexia is Dr Caroline Leaf with her latest book, “Think and Eat Yourself Smart”, published in early April by Baker Books.

Dr Leaf describes the book as “an attempt to reintroduce a culture of thinking and effort back into eating, one based on diligently stewarding the body and world God entrusted to us.  In the spirit of renewing the mind, it is a lifestyle book that seeks to reimagine what we eat within an integrated spirit, mind and body framework.”

And that would be fine in theory, though in practice, Dr Leaf uses the book more as a vehicle for divulging her personal food preferences and her socio-political ideology while recycling most of her dubious brain science.

But before we go any further, let me issue a disclaimer: There’ll be some who will look this review and assume I’m being critical of Dr Leaf’s book for the sake of being critical.  I recognise that I’m not Dr Leaf’s number one fan, however, I want to say from the outset of this review that I have approached this as dispassionately and objectively as I can.

“Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is certainly not all bad.  Dr Leaf raises some legitimate issues.  For example, she’s critical of the vitamin and supplement industry and the staggering cost of supplements compared to their very limited benefits.  She discusses the previous dietary advice regarding low-fat foods, and how the misguided attempt to reduce our dietary fat intake lead to a compensatory increase in starch and sugars.  She also discussed the current concerns about too much sugar and refined carbohydrates, and raises the very real problem of food waste and food security.  The recipes at the back of the book contain the usual over-rated hipster foodie ingredients like dandelion, kale, quinoa and chia seeds to maintain Dr Leaf’s foodie creds, although some of the recipes themselves sound alright.

Unfortunately, every truth is outweighed by a multiplex of factoids and misrepresentations.  Dr Leaf clearly favours organic food, which despite her claims, have not been shown to be better tasting, more nutritious, less toxic, and better for the environment.  She’s clearly against genetically modified organisms (or GMO’s), a stance which is more populist than scientific.

Dr Leaf’s underlying premises are also deeply flawed.  It’s clear that she’s been heavily influenced by the work of Michael Pollan and other post-modern food gurus of the same ilk.  She’s critical of modern food systems including all food processing, food transportation, and supermarkets, claiming that modern agriculture and food processing destroys all nutrients and taste.  Dr Leaf claims that “Real food is food grown the way God intended: fresh and nutritious, predominantly local, seasonal, grass-fed, as wild as possible, free of synthetic chemicals, whole or minimally processed, and ecologically diverse.” (p29)

Dr Leaf’s definition of “real food” is nothing more than a romanticised post-modern social construct, and claiming it’s God’s idea doesn’t make it any less misleading.  Of course we want our food to be fresh, and we also want it to be nutritious.  But fresh and nutritious are not dependent on being local, seasonal, ecologically diverse (whatever that means), grass-fed and wild.  In fact, how something can be grass-fed and wild seems contradictory.  Processing food makes it safer, and in most cases, more nutritious that the unprocessed farm gate versions.  There’s virtually no pesticide residues left on conventional produce either, so that’s a moot point.

In fact, modern food is actually easier to eat and digest, more nutritious, tastier, safer, and longer lasting than ever before in human history. Today’s canned and frozen foods are infinitely healthier than in the past, and in some cases, more nutritious than the vegetables straight off the farm (canned tomatoes, for example, because nutrients are more easily absorbed from cooked tomatoes).  Dr Leaf’s idealised view of our agrarian past is false, and the notion that we should return to it is inane.

Dr Leaf also spends a great deal of time trying relate our nutritional health to our thinking.  I discussed this in the pre-review of the book, here.  She claims that “Research shows that 75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues come from our thought life; only 2 to 25% come from a combination of genetics and what enters our bodies through food, Medication, pollution, chemicals, and so on.  These statistics show that the mindset behind the meal – the thinking behind the meal – plays a dominant role in the process of human food related health issues, approximately 80 percent.” (p84)

Again, this is a false premise based on bogus science.  75 to 98% of current mental, physical, emotional and behavioural illnesses and issues do not come from our thought life.  What you think and how you feel makes no difference to how your body processes the nutrients you put into it.

This excessive focus on the power of thought is a segue back to her previous teaching, a justification as to why she as a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist should be writing about food.  Unfortunately, the information contained in the second part of the book makes it obvious that she’s not an expert on either.

Sure, Dr Leaf discusses responsibility and choices which are important to what we put in our mouths, but there are so many other variables that are more intrinsic to our individual diets than just personal responsibility.  Like, poverty, income, education, cooking skills or geographic location for example.

Dr Leaf claims that how you think changes how you eat, and how you eat changes how you think.  Except the last part of that statement is mutually exclusive to her premise that the mind is separate to the brain and controls the brain.  What you put in your mouth might change the function of your brain, but how can that change the way you think if the mind is separate to the brain?

This paradox is the death-knell to her books credibility and usefulness.  Not that it makes any difference to Dr Leaf, who conveniently forgets this central tenet of her teaching whenever it suits her.

The advice she provides is also off-track.  The answer to processed food isn’t to plant your own garden, or raise your own chickens, or join a local agro-economic food co-op.  That sort of advice is impractical for the vast majority of her audience.  It excludes everyone who lives in a modern city, or who, like me, has an uncanny ability to kill all but the hardiest of plants.  Even her exhortation to eat “real food” is unnecessarily complicated.

Ultimately, Dr Leaf’s advice isn’t dangerous, but just old and confusing.  Most of the useful information she gives is obscured by the plethora of unnecessary and irrelevant opinions and factoids.  It’s also nothing new.  There have been countless books and blogs written by real nutritionists and dieticians that say the same essential things in much simpler ways.  Even John Oliver did a better job of explaining problems associated with sugar and our modern food systems (* Warning * – Strong language and adult themes).  He’s an agnostic satirical comedian who doesn’t pretend to be a scientific expert, and he still get’s the message across more effectively than Dr Leaf.

To conclude, if you want sound nutritional advice, I’d suggest you head for books by actual dieticians. Professor Rosemary Stanton is one author I would recommend. She’s a Professor of Nutritional Science and Visiting Fellow of the School of Medicinal Sciences at the University of New South Wales.  She’s published hundreds of academic and consumer articles including 33 books on good nutrition.  She’s been lecturing and writing about good food for longer than I’ve been alive.

In contrast, Dr Leaf’s book “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is a repackaging of stale opinion and dubious science by an author who isn’t a nutritionist, or even a cognitive neuroscientist for that matter.  There might be some helpful advice in there, but it would be difficult for an average reader to pick out what’s beneficial and what’s bogus.

To that end, “Think and Eat Yourself Smart” is a lot like a frozen microwave dinner.  It looks good on the packaging, but what you get on the inside isn’t the same.  There’s a few nutritional morsels, to be sure, but most of it is just offal and gristle that’s been homogenised to an unrecognisable mush and then reassembled.

If you’re a Dr Leaf devotee, or you’re interested in her socio-political views, then by all means, buy this book.  If you want sound nutritional advice, look elsewhere.

 

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Echinacea: No better than blessings

Back in the sixth century AD, most of Europe was succumbing to the bubonic plague.  One of the first signs of the plague was sneezing, and so as legend has it, Pope Gregory the Great was the first to say “God bless you” when anyone sneezed, presumably as a pre-emptive death rite.

The practice of saying “Bless you” to any and all steternatory reflexes spread across Europe just as quickly as the plague did, and then to other parts of the world where they developed their own local variation (for example, apparently people in Arabic countries say, “Alhamdulillah,” which means, “praise be to God.” Hindus say, “Live!” or “Live well!”).  There were also some superstitious meanings attached.  For example, people can to believe that a sneeze was someone’s soul detaching itself and exiting the body, and saying “Bless you” would stop Satan from stealing their untethered soul (http://goo.gl/znyyuY).

These days, we know that the humble sneeze has nothing to do with detaching souls or the Bubonic Plague, but interestingly, the cultural phenomenon of blessing people every time they sneeze is something that lives on.

While it’s not the only reason people sneeze, we know that the main cause for sneezing, especially at this time of year, is viruses.  There are lots of different home and herbal remedies that people swear by for colds and flus.  I hear about them every winter.  Last year I reviewed the effectiveness for Olive Leaf Extract.  Another popular herbal remedy is Echinacea.

Echinacea is a family of perennial flowering plants which are in the same broad class as sunflowers.  Early botanists gave the flowers the name Echinacea, from the Greek root word is rooted in the Greek word ‘echinos’ because the distinct spiky appearance and feel of the flower heads looks a little like an echidna or hedgehog.

Traditionally, Echinacea products are thought to enhance the action of the white blood cells, which in turn, is supposed to help the body fight off various sorts of infections.  There are many different variations of Echinacea products that are available for consumers, but these vary widely in composition. They contain different extracts from different bits of different Echinacea species which result in vastly different chemical compositions between the products.

So, do Echinacea products work?  Are they worth the money people are spending on them?

As I was poking around the internet today, I came across this article in Natural News.  The article boasted: “Echinacea preparation as effective as Tamiflu in early flu cases in large clinical trial” … “Echinaforce Hotdrink has here been demonstrated as attractive therapy for acute influenza treatment with better safety and comparable efficacy profile to the neuraminidase inhibitor Oseltamivir.” (Oseltamivir is also known as Tamiflu, the gold standard influenza treatment).

That sounded promising, until I looked at the actual paper the article was referencing.  Natural News failed to report the most important paragraph, “This study was sponsored by A. Vogel Bioforce AG, Roggwil, Switzerland, manufacturer of Echinaforce Hotdrink. R. Schoop is an employee of Bioforce AG, and K. Rauš and P. Klein have received honorarium funds from the study sponsor.” [1]  In other words, this journal article was the scientific equivalent of an infomercial.  No particularly independent or trustworthy results there.

What about independent trials into Echinacea?  Do they show any benefit?

Ah, that would be “no”.  Echinacea products have been reviewed several times in the past [2-4] and the same conclusion has been reached every time.  In fact, a Cochrane review (the gold standard of clinical research) was published on the use of Echinacea for the common cold in 2014 [5].  The best that it could say for Echinacea was that there was a weak trend towards benefit for prevention of colds, but there was also a trend towards people dropping out of the study because of side effects.  There was no evidence at all for treating a cold with Echinacea.

In biostatistics lingo, ‘trend’ means there was a small blip one way or another, but it could be entirely related to random chance.

The bottom line is that there’s no strong evidence that Echinacea does anything for a cold or influenza.  In terms of health benefits, taking Echinacea for a cold is equivalent to saying “bless me” whenever you sneeze.  At least blessings don’t cost $15 dollars a bottle.

So when you’re inevitably struck down by the modern plague of common colds this winter, stick to rest, fluids, and some paracetamol.  They’re much more of a blessing than Echinacea supplements.

References

[1]        Raus K, Pleschka S, Klein P, Schoop R, Fisher P. Effect of an Echinacea-Based Hot Drink Versus Oseltamivir in Influenza Treatment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy, Multicenter, Noninferiority Clinical Trial. Curr Ther Res Clin Exp 2015 Dec;77:66-72.
[2]        Barnes J, Anderson LA, Gibbons S, Phillipson JD. Echinacea species (Echinacea angustifolia (DC.) Hell., Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt.,Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench): a review of their chemistry, pharmacology and clinical properties. J Pharm Pharmacol 2005 Aug;57(8):929-54.
[3]        Hart A, Dey P. Echinacea for prevention of the common cold: an illustrative overview of how information from different systematic reviews is summarised on the internet. Preventive medicine 2009 Aug-Sep;49(2-3):78-82.
[4]        Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne 2014 Feb 18;186(3):190-9.
[5]        Karsch-Volk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2014;2:CD000530.