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Book Review: Perfect Health Diet (Scribner Edition, December 2012)

It’s both surprising and embarrassing that humans, with our big brains, are the only animals that don’t seem to know what they ought to eat. How did we get here—and, most importantly, what can we do about it?

Perfect Health Diet - book cover

What Is The Perfect Health Diet?

The Perfect Health Diet is much more than a weight loss plan. In the words of the authors, Dr. Paul and Dr. Shou-Ching Jaminet:

“We believe that:

  • Nearly all diseases can be cured if they are attacked at their root causes: toxic foods, malnutrition, and chronic infections.
  • Nearly everyone can achieve a healthy weight and a long, healthy life by eating as they were meant to eat.”

These are bold claims! Yet in my professional judgment, its lucid explanations based on careful, patient research justify the following assertion:

The Perfect Health Diet is the new baseline from which all future attempts to determine the optimal human diet must be argued and measured.

How Does The Perfect Health Diet Work?

I’ve often described my own approach to nutrition as an attempt to combine archaeology (evidence from the past) with biochemistry (evidence of the present) , using each to fill in what we don’t yet know or understand of the other.

The PHD (as I’ll refer to it henceforth, for brevity) takes a similar approach: it uses what we know of human evolutionary context (and of modern hunter-gatherer diets) as a starting point—but unlike most “Paleo” diet books, it moves quickly forward to the present.

The central concept of the book is: for each nutrient necessary for human life, there is a peak health range for its consumption. Too little of a nutrient causes poor health due to deficiency, and too much causes poor health due to toxicity. (Even water can be toxic if we drink enough of it!)

So, the authors set out to find the peak health range for every known necessary nutrient. From this knowledge, they choose a range of whole foods (and approximate quantities in which to consume them) that bring the known nutrients into the peak health range, while keeping toxic antinutrients below their threshold of toxicity (usually by eliminating them altogether).

This emphasis on whole foods distinguishes the PHD from many other scientific, reductionistic approaches: the Jaminets understand and accept that we don’t know (and, perhaps, can’t know) every substance necessary for human life.

“Food is full of nutrients that we don’t know we need. We share a common biology with plants and animals, and their tissues contain premade biological compounds that are valuable to us and that we may not be able to construct in adequate quantities from purified nutrients.” -pp. 66-67

The bulk of the book is devoted to finding the peak health ranges for macronutrients (Part II), micronutrients (Part IV)—and antinutrients, whose peak health range is often zero (Part III). (I personally find Part IV extremely illuminating, as it identifies several micronutrients in which we can easily become deficient even with careful eating, and recommends a small, carefully chosen list of supplements in response.)

When referring to human diet and metabolism, “macronutrients” are nutrients that can be burned for energy: protein, fat, carbohydrate. (The calorie content of a food is due to macronutrients.)

“Micronutrients” are required to support metabolism, but cannot be burned for energy: vitamins and minerals. (As such, micronutrients are generally required in much smaller quantities.)

Part V provides specific applications of the PHD to issues from fungal infections, to cancer, to GERD; it explains why cholesterol is a nutrient, not a poison, and what those “cholesterol numbers” really mean; it discusses uses of intermittent fasting and techniques for better sleep…

…and, yes, it includes one very short chapter on weight loss. But by the time you’ve read that far, you’ll have such a solid understanding of nutrition and metabolism that it’ll seem perfectly reasonable for the book to be structured in this way, and you’ll know all you need to in order to reach a healthy weight and body composition.

(Warning: the PHD is not intended to, by itself, give you a “six pack”! But you’ll have a much better chance at it by starting with the PHD, achieving a state of good health and body composition, and only then trying to optimize for sub-10% bodyfat.)

In refreshing contrast to most diet plans, the PHD emphasizes that healthy food should be delicious, because our tastes for nutrients like fat and salt don’t exist to tempt us or make us obese. Our tastes exist to guide us towards the nutrients we need—as long as we choose from evolutionarily appropriate, PHD-approved foods.

The book concludes with a basic meal planning guide (one which, fortunately, admits the reality of going to work), and a pointer to the Recipes section of the Perfect Health Diet website.

How Different Is The New Edition?

I’ve been recommending the original edition of the Perfect Health Diet since long before the first AHS in 2011, so many of my readers are already familiar with it.

Paul Jaminet modestly claims “The Scribner edition is 50% longer; almost half of the material is new. Original material is revised and updated,” but I felt as if I were reading a completely new book. The new edition flows more logically—and though it contains much more information than the old edition, it somehow feels less intimidating. And as a bonus, it’s substantially cheaper despite being printed in hardback!

My verdict: if you’ve read the previous edition and found it useful, the new edition is well worth buying.

What’s In (And Out) Of The Perfect Health Diet?

The prescription will be familiar to anyone in the Paleo and ancestral health community: eat meat, fish, eggs, leafy vegetables, root vegetables and other “safe starches”, and fruits; use natural saturated and monounsaturated fats, like butter, coconut oil, and olive oil, for cooking and flavor; avoid grains, legumes (including peanuts), “vegetable oils”, and refined sugar; don’t forget to eat fatty fish and shellfish, bone broths, and beef liver. Peeled white potatoes and white rice (in moderation) are OK, as is butter and fermented dairy. A few carefully-chosen supplement recommendations round out the diet.

Issues?

I hope it’s clear that I view the new edition of the Perfect Health Diet as an indispensable resource. However, there are some changes I would make.

The most glaring omission: the footnotes don’t exist in the book! A note on the first page of each chapter directs you to a page on the Perfect Health Diet website to find them. While I do enjoy the convenience of being able to click links when I’m online, I strongly dislike having the source of an assertion hidden from me unless I have a computer and an Internet connection right at hand. Frankly, I find this omission disconcerting, and while I understand that having pages almost completely covered in footnotes (as in the old edition) is distracting, I hope Scribner will correct the deficiency by adding endnotes to subsequent printings.

Moving on: while the PHD does briefly discuss tweaking protein intake for longevity or body recomposition, I would like to see more acknowledgment and exploration of biochemical and metabolic individuality, and of the benefits of varying dietary composition over time. For instance, we’re starting to learn a great deal about how various genetic mutations affect our processing and conversion of nutrients, and why some people require more of certain nutrients than others. While we still might not understand exactly why, there are clearly some people with metabolic issues around carbohydrate (even “safe starches”). And not all VLC issues are caused by insufficient starch or solved by more starch.

However, I don’t wish my comments to detract from the fact that the PHD is a masterwork.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to communicate just how comprehensive the new Perfect Health Diet is. You could pick almost any paragraph with a footnote, blow that single study up to book length, add breathless hype and a celebrity endorsement, and start a new fad diet equivalent to hundreds of others that are sitting on bookstore shelves, right now. Reading the PHD exposes both the bankruptcy of mainstream dietary advice, and the poverty of most well-known alternatives (all of which, according to the statistics, fail miserably). Most importantly, it provides us with a credible, science-based alternative that isn’t vulnerable to the typical naive arguments like “But cavemen only lived to age 25″ or “That’ll raise my cholesterol.”

The PHD is clearly the product of many years of careful research, real-world testing, and hard work. As I said above, “The Perfect Health Diet is the new baseline from which all future attempts to determine the optimal human diet must be argued and measured.”

In case my point isn’t clear: yes, that means you should buy a copy and read it. Even if you find your own nutritional optimum to lie outside their guidelines, the supplement recommendations alone will save you the price of the book…

…and the wealth of information it contains may allow you, or someone you know and value, to attain perfect health.

Buy the Perfect Health Diet at Amazon.com

You can support gnolls.org by buying the new Perfect Health Diet (or anything else) through this link. It costs you nothing, and I get a small spiff.


(Legal disclaimer: I received a pre-publication copy of the book for free.)

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