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A curate's egg
on 2 June 2012
So far the reviews here are from enthusiasts, and a few detractors with unconvincing arguments. I thought I'd try to bring some balance.
I read this book straight after "Why we get fat" by Gary Taubes, because I wanted to read more about the idea that saturated fats are good for us and carbohydrates are not. Barry Grove's book adds further support to that idea, while also extending the theme into other areas of diet and life (e.g. salt, sunlight) and examining the effects of high-carb diets on other areas of health, such as hypothyroidism and epilepsy.
At its best the book offers fascinating details of how our bodies interact with the foods we eat, and the discussion of milk, bran etc had me walking around the supermarket last week eying much of what was on offer with deep suspicion.
But the price we pay for having such a widespread discussion in a 400ish page book is that the arguments are not put forward with sufficient account of the evidence to be wholly convincing. This seems to suit Mr Groves' style. Time and again he makes an assertion, and an endnote number leads you to the list of references at the back of the book. Some of the references are to presumbably peer-reviewed articles, some are newspaper articles or other sources. Anyone who has read e.g. Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" will be rightly reluctant to take these articles, and Mr Groves' account of their conclusions, at face value. We are generally told little of the samples, the control group, or even the conclusions as reported by the authors themselves.
At the risk of this sounding like it is a personal attack (it isn't - I'm really quite sympathetic to the arguments in the book and would love to see conclusive evidence for them) I think these defects in the book arise from:
1) Barry Groves' apparent lack of medical/scientific training. A short "About the author" at the back makes no reference to his having any medical or other qualifications (though I've read online that he is an electronic engineer). While he clearly knows a lot about the subject, I suspect that such training may have given him a more balanced approach. [Update: I've since read an online article which mentioned that he had a doctorate in nutritional science, but didn't say where it was from, and if true it's surprising he didn't mention it in the book.]
2) His apparent emotional investment in his core argument - the early chapters are the most offputting, where Mr Groves essentially accuses almost everyone who disagrees with him of bad faith. His frustration is understandable, but the combative approach makes me suspect that he is likely to be more sympathetic to evidence which he can add to his armoury than evidence which goes the other way. The fact that he has been arguing these general themes since the 1960s does not give me faith in his open-mindedness.
3) His wide-ranging scepticism - Mr Groves is a very energetic man, who apparently wins world archery competitions "for relaxation". He seems above all to delight in arguing against scientific consensus. I see from his blog that he also writes as a global warming sceptic. But as a reader, while being told that something you've always believed is untrue may be genuinely revelatory, a dozen revelations down the line you feel a new scepticism of your own creeping in.
So overall, I would say this book is excellent in the breadth of questions it raises, with some very compelling arguments, but I would not rely on Barry Groves alone to provide the answers. While I haven't read "Wheat Belly" yet, I suspect the best book on this subject is yet to be written.