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Read Your Way to Happiness

I often write about happiness on this blog; it’s a big interest of mine, professionally and personally. I also read about happiness a lot. Here are some of my favorite books:

Happier, by Tal Ben-Shahar. Last year, this was the book that started me on my happiness journey and I re-read it often. It opened my eyes to the field of positive psychology.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. Great book, New York Times bestseller. My full review is here. Love her blog, too.

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I suppose this isn’t technically a “happiness” book, but because it’s a memoir of one woman’s search for happiness (and it’s so wonderfully written) I include it here. Plus, I have a major girl-crush on Elizabeth Gilbert. Check out her awesome TED talk, too.

Spontaneous Happiness, by Andrew Weil. I gobble down so much of what the good Dr. Weil has to say, it gets embarrassing. He’s a beacon of wisdom and advice, and was pioneering ahead in integrative medicine way before it was fashionable. I was very excited to see him turn his attention to the subject of happiness.

And here’s what I’m going to read next:

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky. I like her blog on Psychology Today, and I keep tripping over references to this book in other places, so it’s in my to-be-read file.

Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman. Because he’s commonly regarded as the founding father of positive psychology, my happiness education will never be complete until I read this.

The Nine Rooms of Happiness, by Lucy Danziger, editor-in-chief of SELF magazine, and Catherine Bindorf, MD. This looks like it has a cute/clever analogy for happiness (nine rooms of a house)…plus I like SELF magazine, I admire Lucy Danziger, and Catherine Bindorf is a psychiatrist, so it definitely hits the list.

Anybody else have recommendations for books about happiness? I’m always *happy* to add to my reading list!

On My Bookshelf: Mindless Eating

How much free, stale popcorn would you eat in a movie theater? Does it depend if it’s served in a medium-sized bag or a jumbo tub? And what about candy: how much would you eat if it was sitting on your desk? Would it matter if the glass dish was opaque or clear? If it had a lid? 

Well, the person who knows the answers to all those questions, and more, is Brian Wansink, Ph.D. And he compiled all those answers in a fantastic book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

This is a man who has made a career studying the feeding and foraging habits of the species knows as…well, us. And, quite frankly, it’s pretty shocking. And perhaps a little depressing. Turns out we are sheep, people, spineless sheep when it comes to being suckered into eating more. Give us bigger containers, we’ll gobble more. Move those containers closer to us, we’ll scarf down more. Sit us in front of a television? Yep, more.

But the point isn’t to be entertained with tales of secretly refillable soup bowls (yes–you will mindlessly eat more soup if your bowl magically refills) and sneaky wine bottle labels (yes–you will linger in a restaurant and eat more food if you think it’s a more prestigious vintage). The point is to learn how to harness these psychological phenomena for good rather than evil.

As Wansink says: “our stomachs are bad at math”. We are terrible at keeping track of how much we’ve eaten. Was it 30 french fries or 20? The thing is, over time, it makes a difference.

What’s scary: nobody seems immune to the things that trick us into overeating. Some of Wansink’s sneakiest studies were done on people who should have known better. Like graduate students who just attended a lecture on this stuff. Turns out they will shovel more Chex Mix into their faces if served from larger bowls than from smaller bowls, just like the rest of us would.

But the good news is that you can actually use this information to improve your eating habits. Wansink talks about the Mindless Margin:

If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much, we know it. But there is a calorie range–a mindless margin–where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences.

Over the course of a year, the mindless margin can cause us to lose 10 lbs or gain 10 lbs. Totally unaware. For example, when people pre-plate their food, they eat about 14% less than when they take smaller amounts and then go back for seconds or thirds. So, make a habit of pre-plating!

This book is brilliant. There are so many fascinating tidbits and ideas–more than I can describe here. Personally, I’m always a fan of a good jedi-mind trick that helps you lose or maintain weight without feeling the pain of deprivation. As Wansink says: “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on”.

Hear, hear.

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On My Bookshelf: 168 Hours

I just finished devouring a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam.

This is an incredible book, and one that just might change my life.

How many of us say “I have no time.”? We all say that, as far as I can tell. We all feel like we’re suffering a serious lack of time. Including me: especially since having kids, I’ve become very familiar with the agonizing frustration of time poverty. And I have assumed this is a cross I have to bear (until my children leave home, at least).

This book has given me a glimmer of hope. It has made me feel that in fact I do have enough time for everything that’s important to me. Which is nothing short of revolutionary.

Vanderkam develops her thesis like this: we all have 168 hours per week (24/7, multiplied through). Even those people who are CEOs of international companies and mothers of six. They have the same number of hours per week as we do: 168. And this is actually a lot of time. So where does it all go? That’s the kicker: it turns out we’re all notoriously bad at knowing exactly where our time goes. (And yes, there are detailed studies that document this fact).

To start you need to keep a 168 hour log. My first clue I needed this book was my gut reaction to this task: I so don’t have time to keep a time diary. But this is the only way you can really, truly see where all your time is going.

Then, it’s a matter of choosing what we do with the 168 hours we have given to us each week. And jigsawing it all together. Which is actually the tough part. But it can be done. Vanderkam places great importance on knowing our “core competencies” and prioritizing those activities. And ignoring, minimizing, or outsourcing all else. The best bit? This book is much more than an abstract, philosophic discussion: she presents tons of strategies for improving our time usage. There are loads of ways we can all become more efficient in the things we do. 

Something else I liked: the idea of saying “that’s not a priority” instead of “I don’t have time for that” (the knee-jerk mantra we all repeat). Of course you would have time for any given activity, if you really had to fit it in. You’re just choosing not to. By flipping things like this, you regain control. And control is a good thing. Feeling out of control is a big source of stress for many people (I know it is for me).

Which leads me to the reason why I decided to write a post about this book on a healthy living blog. I think Vanderkam’s ideas could be a key component of any stress management program. Time pressure is a huge-ola source of stress for many people. Offering solutions to that pressure has the potential to ameliorate a lot of stress. And beyond, really, into helping people live a truly happy and full life.

Highly, highly recommended.

Losing Weight the French Way: Weighing In On The Dukan Diet

Everywhere I look these days I see something about the Dukan Diet. it’s the diet that, famously, Kate and her mother went on prior to the Royal Wedding. And it’s touted as the new French woman’s secret. Apparently it swept Europe after it was first published in 2000, and now it’s come to North America. I also read a claim that it was similar to Atkins but with a few key changes (like a “healthier Atkins”).

With all this attention, I decided I really had to look into it.

So I bought the book, read it completely, and here’s my summary:

Pierre Dukan is a French physician who developed his diet over 35 years in clinical practice.There are four phases to the diet.

1)The Attack Phase. This is where you eat what he calls “pure protein”. Only lean meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, nonfat dairy, and tofu. Plus 1 1/2 tbsp oat brain daily, at least 1 1/2 quarts water daily, and a 20 minute walk every day. The idea here is to kick-start your weight loss and give you some positive reinforcement. This phase lasts 2-7 days.

2)The Cruise Phase. Here you alternate 1 pure protein day with 1 protein + vegetables day (but not starchy eg, like potatoes, corn, and lentils). Plus oat bran (now 2 tbsp) and 30 minutes of walking daily. You stay on this diet until you’ve reached your target weight. Dukan reports that you should expect to lose around 2 pounds per week, although the weight loss may be faster in the initial stages of this phase. 

3)The Consolidation Phase. He also calls this the Transition Diet. The idea here is a very slow transition back to your “normal” or long-term eating plan. He says that this is a crucial phase, and ignoring this step (on any diet) is the reason so many people have rebound weight gain. The duration of this phase is 5 days for every pound you lost on the diet. Essentially, you’re slowly re-introducing the foods you eliminated from the first two phases. So what are you eating? All protein and vegetables from the previous phase, plus one serving of fruit per day, 2 slices of whole grain bread per day, 1 1/2 ounces of cheese per day, and 2 servings of starchy food per week. Plus 2 “celebration meals” per week, and 1 day of pure protein per week.

4)The Permanent Stabilization Phase. This is the eating plan you are supposed to maintain for life. It’s pretty simple: you eat “normally” 6 out of 7 days per week. Each week you have one day of pure protein, just like in the Attack Diet. He has three other guidelines: 1)no escalators or elevators. 2) eat 3 tbsp of oat bran a day. And 3) “Hold on to everything you have learned and the good habits you have acquired while completing the whole program”.

So after reading the book, I looked for some evidence or research that might have been done on this particular diet. And there was nothing. Nobody has researched the Dukan diet, specifically. Not even Dukan himself. Okay, well, except from his observations while using this diet with his patients for 35 years. But this experience is all anecdotal and observational. Which isn’t terrible, just not exactly rigorous research. But just because there isn’t a lot of research on something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It could just mean scientists haven’t had a chance to study it yet. The truth–good or bad, or both–will come out eventually. But that doesn’t help us in the here and now.

There is rigorous research, on the other hand, for the general principle of low-carb diets. They are effective for weight loss, that much we know. And that’s Dukan’s underlying principle: low (or no) carb, and high protein.

The most radical part of this diet is the Attack Phase, where he advocates protein only. And this is where dietitians seem to get a little nervous (or scream & shout). But, the thing is, that phase only lasts 2-7 days. That’s pretty brief. If you’re generally healthy, it’s hard to imagine you doing any major damage to yourself in such a short time. Especially if you follow his advice and drink tons of water. After that, the alternating protein diet, he’s got you eating plenty of vegetables, which is a very healthy thing. And he emphasizes lean protein–which, to my mind, is a good thing (better than a bacon-cheese-egg diet which is a common interpretation of Atkins, the Zone, etc). The third phase is where I have a few more concerns. In principle, I think a very slow transition phase to allow your body to stabilize after weight loss is a great idea. But the rules in this phase are complicated, and I wonder how many people will be able to follow it properly. Also, going for so long with so little fruit has me worried, too. The fourth phase, for long-term maintenance, seems to be pretty sound. Again, I don’t think most people would be harmed by a protein day once a week. I’m just not sure it would be enough to keep people from regaining weight over the long-term. A lot would depend on what they’re eating the other days of the week.

Bottom line for me: I think this diet might work for weight loss for some people. The rules of the weight loss phases are pretty simple, and keeping things simple is very helpful for adherence to a diet. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, given that my profession is evidence-based, and this diet is anything but. It’s pretty radical to go so low-carb, and not something I would advocate long-term. Vegetarians would have a difficult time with this diet. And I would not recommend it for anyone who isn’t generally healthy, especially people with kidney disease, and certainly not for pregnant/breastfeeding women or children. 

I guess what it comes down to is weighing the costs and the benefits. Do the benefits of weight loss to a person’s health, especially if they are obese (and thus at high risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes…well-documented stuff), outweigh the possible (and as yet, not exactly known) risks of a radical diet in the short-term? If a diet like this helps someone who is destined for bad health consequences down the road, is it worth the short-term complications (like constipation and bad breath on a high-protein diet)? Lots of questions, not a lot of answers at this point (from a research point of view). But, as with so many things, I think it comes down to individual factors–what works for one person may be a terrible idea for another. And vice versa. 

Anybody have any experience with the Dukan Diet? I’d love to hear about it.

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On My Bookshelf: The Happiness Project

I’ve been doing lots of reading on happiness lately. And one of the first books I picked up (and promptly devoured): The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. If you haven’t heard about it…in a nutshell: Woman with a good life (writer, mother, living in New York City) realizes she’s not as happy as she would like to be. Decides to undertake a year-long project of making herself happier, using all the current research and ancient wisdom she can get her hands on.

To start, I love that a book about being happy has hit #1 on the New York Times list. Love that fact.

I personally feel that happiness is a cornerstone to health and well-being. Specifically, you can eat all the kale you want and jog your little heart out…but if you’re not happy, it’s going to catch up with you eventually. (And what’s the point, anyway?)

I guess I started developing these ideas when I was digging into stress management (a fascinating topic and near to my heart). But I soon realized that happiness is more than just managing stress. It’s more than taking you to baseline. It’s about living life to the full, embracing all you are and living abundantly, completely in the moment.

So what do I love about The Happiness Project?

I love that Gretchen Rubin takes a scientific approach. She’s done a ton of reading and clearly went digging into all the latest research (and ancient writings, too), to find what makes people happy in this world. What I think is clever is how she takes a systematic approach to a very loose and new-agey concept. I’m sure this is part of the appeal of her book. She groups her thoughts into tidy categories: a theme for each month, and a short list of resolutions to go with that theme. She has some elegant and fun ideas that she lists in her “Twelve Commandments” and her “Secrets of Adulthood”.

I like her tone: plain and forthright, yet lighthearted at the same time. She comes across as self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Her book manages to be at once inspirational and practical. Which is not easy to do.

Who do I think should read this book? People who want to be happier (don’t we all??). People who are skeptical that you can change your life (without changing your life, as she says), and could benefit by seeing how one person has done it. People who have a logical or scientific mind, and appreciate this quality in other people. People who were inspired by Eat, Pray, Love but who can’t simply take off for a year to follow their bliss (but who are on a quest for a better life nonetheless!).

The Happiness Project is not the last word on happiness. There’s much more to learn and read and think about on your quest for a happier life. To that end, Rubin’s suggestions for further reading, at the end of her book, are a terrific resource.

Next on my own reading list? (Major “happiness” guru) Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish.

Will report back.

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The Skinny on: The Sonoma Diet

This post is part of a regular feature I’ve got planned: reviews of popular diets. If there’s a diet you’d like me to review, send me a message, or use the comments below!

So…the Sonoma Diet. This was created by Dr. Connie Guttersen, a registered dietitian with a Ph.D in nutrition who lives in California.

Essentially, this is a diet inspired by the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle…with a weight-loss spin, and a nod to the cuisine of the California wine region Sonoma valley. (sidebar: love Sonoma; it’s where I got engaged. If you get a chance, you gotta visit!)

What I like about the Sonoma Diet:

For starters, recommending the Mediterranean diet is a solid approach. There’s heaps of research showing that the Mediterranean diet is supaah for your health. It lowers your rate of heart disease, cancer…all sorts of nasty stuff. It seems like every other day I come across another study touting the benefits of the Med diet.

Guttersen uses a “plate-and-bowl” concept for her diet, which I like. Super-easy to use, no-brainer and zero time involved. No counting calories or anything else. Just fill your plate or bowl according to simple percentages (think pie chart), depending on the meal. For example, in Wave 1: for dinner, use a 9 inch plate, and fill it with 30% protein, 20% grains, 50% veggies.

I like the lifestyle approach–the emphasis on whole foods and the enjoyment and pleasure of food. Too many diets are restrictive and, frankly, miserable. A recipe for cheating if you ask me. The Sonoma Diet is the opposite of this. (Very much in keeping with my Wicked Healthy philosophy, incidentally).

Guttersen frequently mentions the health benefits of this diet beyond simply losing weight, which is fab. It’s important to keep bigger health goals in mind beyond just looking good in a bikini. Like reducing heart disease, decreasing inflammation, preventing cancer. Guttersen repeatedly stresses the importance of power foods like olive oil and tomatoes (yum!)…foods that are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants.

Perhaps my fave part of this diet is that you’re encouraged to drink a glass of wine every day. Every. Day. Love it.

What I don’t like about the Sonoma Diet:

I’m not so crazy about the de-emphasis on cheese and dairy. I’m a fan of dairy. It’s a great source of protein, calcium…all sorts of goodies.

There’s no modification of the diet for men, for women, for people larger or smaller than average, or for varying activity levels. One-size-fits-all portions and proportions don’t make a lot of sense to me. Granted, there’s a little of this, when she mentions snacks, but not enough.

The meal plans are primarily structured around Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. To me, there should be more snacks. I think diets (and healthy eating, in general) works best if there are structured snacks between meals. Eating every 3 hours or so to keep blood sugar from doing major spikes and dips is the way to go. She really only says “you may” have a snack to tide you over.

The diet completely nixes sugar (including fruit) in Wave 1, and the idea is so you can “eliminate” sugar cravings by the end of those 10 days. And here’s where she loses me. I’m highly skeptical than anyone can forevermore lose their cravings for sugar by simply not having sugary stuff for 10 days. Pinning your hopes on this fantasy is a setup for failure. You really need to have a more realistic way of approaching sugar cravings.

In the third part of the diet, which starts after you’ve reached your target weight, Guttersen gets a little thin on the advice. I kinda felt like I’d been left to fend for myself here, and would have appreciated more specific guidelines and strategies in the maintenance phase.

I Would Recommend the Sonoma Diet for…

People who love food, love flavors, and love to linger over meals. (hmm…is there anyone who doesn’t fit into this category?)

People who enjoy cooking (and have time to cook). A key part of the diet is making your own meals. Granted, the recipes look/sound absolutely mouthwatering. But ya gotta have the time to make them.

People who aren’t looking for quick-fix, fad-type solutions to weight loss.

People who don’t want to count calories, look up GI points, or do any other food math.

Basically, I’m a big fan of this diet.

Big.

Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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