Monday, May 08, 2006

Book Review: You Are What You Eat, by Gillian McKeith

It's interesting to see the extent to which the food celebrity industry has captivated our lives. I suppose the best examples for our fascination with the combination of food and celebrities is The Food Network, featuring such figures as Rachael Ray, Alton Brown and others. We like celebrities, and we like food; many of these folks have websites, and magazines, and sell products. I've often asked myself how their literature would fare had they not enjoyed celebrity status, and recently, I had a chance to find out.

A few months ago, as part of my project of getting back on the holistic nutrition wagon, I bought myself Gillian McKeith's book You Are What You Eat. I had no idea she was a celebrity and had no interest in it. Only after reading a good part of the book did I find out that she's quite a controversial celebrity in England, with her very own TV show by the same name. Her website offers additional information about her various enterprises.

McKeith is Scottish in origin, lived in the States for a while, and is a holistic nutritionist. One of the more controversial features of her biography is her constant and irritating use of the title PhD, which she obtained from the unaccredited Clayton College. I must confess I'm bothered by this, but not for the same reasons that the medical orthodoxy is. Yes, I happen to know firsthand how much work goes into a PhD from an established academic institute, but the usage of the title in itself doesn't annoy me nearly as much as what this says about a society which does not listen to anyone UNLESS they have a PhD next to their name. It is disappointing that McKeith feels the need to buy into this sad state of affairs by calling herself "Dr. Gillian" and "Dr. McKeith" almost every single page - and it's particularly disappointing in light of the fact that she actually has many great things to say, and the book is really a very good and readable resource.

One of the book's great strengths is the wealth of information it manages to convey in a cool, hip, magazine-like format. The colorful pages and beautiful vegetable and fruit photography makes one enthusiastic about healthy food and helps the readers get through quite a lot of details, advice, and regimes. This is important, because nutrition books are not often this fun. And, if you manage to ignore the personality cult and celebrity hype - and it's possible - it makes for a very enjoyable read.

McKeith starts the book by providing several tools for self assessment. These are, to a great extent, based on tongue diagnosis principles from Traditional Chinese medicine. The book does not go into the difficult energetic terminology of Chinese medicine; none of the Zang Fu intricacies are mentioned, and the Five Elements are only hinted at. The book easily translates some of the diagnostics to Western anatomy, in an easy, down-to-earth manner. It's not as precise, of course, as getting a diagnosis from a Chinese Medicine person, but it certainly provides layfolk with a wealth of tools to figure out why they feel the way they feel.

The book is also helpful in rejecting fad diets and in emphasizing the importance of variety and moderation. Extreme low-carb regimes are not encouraged, but whole grains and complex carbs are emphasized, and so are food combinations (particularly for folks suffering from digestive issues). Extreme low-fat regimes are also rejected, and McKeith recommends eating healthy fats, like avocados and nuts, as well as using Omega-3 supplements. In general, the plan is built on a wealth of natural foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, seaweeds, goat dairy and yogurt (McKeith warns against too much consumption of cow dairy), occasional eggs, fish and chicken. She is an advocate of juices, but not at the expense of eating whole food with fiber. She also recommends a series of supplements: certain vitamins, good bacteria for colon health, green foods, and certain herbs for certain conditions. All this advice has to be balanced by mild exercise; she recommends picking something that would be fun, like walking, yoga, tai chi, pilates, trampoline hopping, or anything at all one would find enjoyable and not burdensome.

McKeith's advice is geared towards overall health; she has recommendations for PMS, menopause symptoms, digestive issues, stress, hair, skin and nails, and - as one would expect - weight loss. The book also contains a very gentle and mild cleansing regime, which I tried a couple of months ago. It's built on juices, salad and vegetable broth or miso soup, and truly works wonders. This cleanse is followed by an example of a seven-week plan. The recipes included in the book are, well, not fantastic; but with very little effort and some creativity, one can come up with delicious recipes containing the various natural foods featured in the book.

Some of the advice, I believe, is very specialized for a British readership. McKeith emphasizes the problems with overconsumption of alcohol and directs her criticism at pub culture. For an Israeli audience, I believe, that would be less of an issue (overeating would be a bigger problem). Also, she criticizes diets composed of mainly cooked foods and advocates a good balance between cooked and raw. In Israel, and in California, that would not be so much of a problem, though I imagine, in the British cold climate, folks tend to eat more warm and cooked foods.

The raw food recommendation, by the way, is a deviation from the traditional Chinese diet recommendations, which many holistic nutritionists like McKeith are modifying these days, arguing (quite plausibly) that the Chinese tendency to cook everything stemmed from the poor sanitation conditions in the times of the Yellow Emperor, when the seminal Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine was compiled.

All in all, the book makes a very good and lively read, and provides a lot of valuable advice both to beginners and to folks who want to refresh good nutrition principles. If you can get over the personality worship and the controversial PhD issue - and I'm sure you can - you'll find this a helpful and entertaining companion on your journey towards good eating and good health.

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