Diet books, biohacking, n=1, and other sticky situations

I was at bookman’s the other day— a local institution/giant used bookstore. I was browsing in the health section (shocker!), and I was struck again by just how many books there are that offer “THE SOLUTION”. To anything. Everything. Drop the weight, get more energy, balance your hormones, look 10 years younger.  Whatever.

good, bad, or ugly?

If I had to give one general piece of advice to consumers of health information, it would be to step AWAY from anything that offers “THE SOLUTION”. At best, they offer some advice that may be helpful to some people. At worse, they promote dangerous practices with no basis to generalize.

This is where we tend to get into trouble. People who have come to mistrust “research” in general may come up with a theory, or they may experiment on themselves. That’s fine. They are doing experiments with an n of 1. They’re biohacking. They’re tinkering. The trouble comes when they believe that something that worked for them is the solution for everyone else, too. And they want to sell books.

So, before you pick up that book, ask yourself some questions:

  • Who is the author? Does this person have any training in the topic, or in health or science in general? Where do they get their authority from? Why should you listen to this person?  This isn’t to say that you need a certificate from the establishment to have something useful to say, but rather just to say “consider the source.”
  • Why was this book written? Is it intended to convey information, or to extend a brand or sell products?
  • What is the book’s claim? Does it sound too good to be true? Does it feel sketchy? It is.
  • What kind of book is it? Is it a personal memoir meant to inspire you, or is it a “program” that you are intended to follow verbatim? Is it purporting to be story, or science?
  • For books claiming to be fact or science, is there any support for the claims? Is it science, or pseudo-science? Are there footnotes or citations? Is the evidence based on peer-reviewed studies, or is it anecdotal? Remember, just because something is said with authority and “sounds true” doesn’t make it so.

This doesn’t make it easy to tell what’s good advice and what’s bogus. There’s lots of gray area. Read a lot, but bring along your skeptic’s mind and be ready to think critically. Happy reading!

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