A Good Book Review on Health

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster, April 2012) acts as the conclusion to the author’s bestselling “humble quest” trilogy.  As with The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs takes his readers on a wild and crazy journey, this time into the world of health.

We all see the ads on tv and the billboards that simultaneously berate and encourage us to optimize our lifestyles with a kind of paternalistic best-friend’s-secret style condescension.  ‘Exercise more’, ‘eat this’ have given way to ‘exercise THIS way THIS often’ and ‘eat THESE foods in THESE portions THIS frequently’.  How to sift through it all and figure out where to start?

Jacobs has had the same crisis of conscience and so he undertakes a two-year-long fore into the health world, testing all the theories and new food options that leave the rest of us stuck in limbo.  From his first afternoon, we see how complex and involved this undertaking will be.

He first tackles the issue of want in a first world consumerist society when he visits Paul McGlothin, director of research for the Calorie Restriction (CR) Society, who offers him a blueberry… but not to eat.  At least, not yet.

Blueberries are notoriously good for you.  Full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, they’re the Vanderbilts of the berry world.

In 20 minutes, Paul – who has been encouraging the Author to image the delight of eating a blueberry without actually eating it – has A.J. salivating so badly that I can almost imagine the drool on the page as I read… or maybe that’s just me.  With all the food readily available to us, we don’t really think about what or how much we’re eating.  Instead, we just eat.  Being mindful is the crux of what this book addresses, and Jacobs is wise to start our collective journey with an anecdote that is both hilarious and memorable.

As the book progresses, Jacobs tackles different parts of the body in turn – a few of them twice – addressing the medicine, exploring the options, and finding a middle ground to move forward with.

The book is funny and quirky, giving readers a real sense of the author’s ‘everyman’ style personality.  If you’ve not read his previous books, which I had not, you’re introduced to a happy-go-lucky journalist willing to throw his pride out the window for the sake of a good story.  This frankness, this earnest and lighthearted consideration of his own physical body as he endeavours to publicly address health crazes, is what most encourages the reader to join the author on this journey.

I found myself getting a bit bogged down in the details on occasion and fighting to stay afloat amidst the amount of information thrown at me.  The last third of the book extends beyond focussing on individual body parts to systems within the body, such as the endocrine system (Chapter 12).  A large part of the appeal of the book was because, by focussing on one body part at a time, the larger interconnected system was generally revealed early on. Like a subtle kind of Erector set or a vast puzzle, the pieces fit together and the picture started showing its edges.  But perhaps this was the author’s intention from the start.

Three chapters that seem to settle on the more esoteric physiological side of the equation are the chapters on the endocrine system, sleeping (Chapter 19), and hands (Chapter 23).  Avoiding toxins, sleeping well, and maintaining dexterity are all important to me (I wrote the initial draft of this review in longhand using a pen and paper, for example), but it seems that these chapters, interspersed throughout the book as they are, act as a way for the author to catch his breath and recharge for the next zany adventure.  Not that I blame him either, to be sure.  The overwhelming amount of information available would exhaust me too and, indeed, the Author postulates that part of the reason why there are so many health crises in the first world (such as obesity, diabetes, etc.) is because society is deluged with options and grows desensitized or apathetic towards it all.

By the end of the book, readers can feel like we’ve run the gauntlet of health with Jacobs.  We stand up straighter, we’re more aware of what we eat, and we start paying more attention to the seemingly small but fundamental preconceptions about health that can be the lever with which you can we can move our world.  From all the examples in Drop Dead Healthy, all the similes offered up by its author, Jacobs’ extensive research, and his complete disregard for his own public ridiculousness, we walk away from this book with a gem of knowledge:  with so many options out there, the important thing is to explore them with an open mind and find what works for you.

Drop Dead Healthy is available from Simon & Schuster in April 2012.

Meggie Macdonald is a Toronto-based literary agent and editor, who tries to walk rather than take the subway as frequently as possible.