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Old 11-04-2011, 06:51 AM   #1
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Diana Schwarzbein, M.D. The Schwarzbein Principle: The Program (2004)

I wanted to read this book because Schwarzbein takes an endocrinological approach to health and weight loss, and I’ve been interested in the endocrine system since taking up yoga years ago. I don’t need convincing that hormone balance is essential to the body’s metabolism, but I hoped to find out more details on the subject from Schwarzbein; I was sorely disappointed.

Not that you’d go far wrong following Schwarzbein’s program: basically, she recommends eating real, not processed, food–and who can argue with that? “The Schwarzbein way”, as Diana grandiosely calls it, could get expensive, though, as she insists everything we eat be organic (and it could get difficult: she tells us not to eat genetically modified grains, for example--I fear that horse has bolted, unless you've access to some arcane grain dealer in a Dickensian back street.) This is a wealthy person’s program; apparently, Diana has a list of celebrity clients as long as your arm.

Schwarzbein doesn't promise quick weight loss; she says we should get healthy first and that the weight loss will obediently follow. She quotes no evidence for that (in fact, she rarely backs up her statements with research), and I have my doubts–I certainly couldn’t lose weight on the wheelbarrow-loads of fruit and vegetables she wants you to knock back each day.

The book starts with 27 pages of tendentious hype before plunging into endless regurgitations and bullet lists of the basics of the programme, which Schwarzbein calls “A unique approach to health” or “a revolutionary approach to health”, and which I call a scribbled-on-the-back-of-a-postage-stamp approach to health. But I was already hoarse with gasping my disagreement at Diana’s glib assertions before I got to that stage. Here’s an example of her style:

[…] you can be following the latest popular craze of not eating enough carbohydrates and you can experience “benefits” such as weight loss, more energy, better mood and lower cholesterol levels. Why is this so terrible? Because it is a short-term fix that will cause damage to your metabolism. By not eating enough carbohydrates, you signal your body to use rather than rebuild. Think of it as your body eating itself up. If you did this on a consistent basis, you would age faster and die younger. Trust me on the physiology.

No, Diana, I can’t trust you on the physiology, unless you jolly well back it up with some research. I respect Schwarzbein’s right to criticise low-carb eating–in fact, I consciously seek out other perspectives–but when densely referenced books abound in this field (Briffa, Groves, Taubes, Bowden, for a start), opinionising alone will not convince me. Schwarzbein often talks, unscientifically, of the body “eating itself up”. Her view of the body is that it’s constantly in a state of damage that needs healing; she’s not just talking about stress, over-dieting, and over-exercising--she regards even normal eating and vigorous exercise as routinely destructive. (On exercise, she comes out with the old saw that “most elite athletes are not long-lived”. I don’t believe that’s true, particularly if you subtract the deaths from drug use and alcoholism.) In my opinion, one of the problems with Schwarzbein’s perspective is that she's based her generalisations on the patients she has seen; but those people are sick, and they came to her with metabolic issues. For the big buck (“more than 400,000 books sold”), Schwarzbein has tried to aim this program at us all, forgetting that most of us are actually healthy. On her long tick list of things that might be wrong with me, I could tick only one; that was constipation, which I occasionally get with low-carb–I'm working on solving the issue, but I never had constipation before this diet, so I don’t regard it as a marker of my overall health.

For a doctor, Schwarzbein says some odd things, which even a layman might question. For example, she writes: “Since the brain cannot use fat or protein as energy, carbohydrates are essential for good brain health. Therefore you never want to eliminate or severely limit carbohydrates, not even in the short term”. Leaving aside the point that low-carb diets do not eliminate carbohydrates, it is known that the brain can use both fat and protein for energy, through processes that convert them to ketones, glycerol, or sugar in the liver. Otherwise, the Inuit would have died out centuries ago.

Here’s another of Schwarzbein’s eyebrow-raising commandments. “Change all sodas, diet sodas and other caffeinated beverages to coffee or teas.” But I thought coffee and teas were caffeinated. I suppose she means drinks with added caffeine as opposed to those which have it in already. She's anti-caffeine, so why tell us to drink coffee and tea? Garbled. The author’s prose, and therefore meaning, is often very poor indeed. Take this: “Do not drink fruit juices, eat fruit cocktail or fruits canned in syrup because they contain too much sugar”–the bad grammar made me misread this at first as an invitation to eat fruit cocktail or fruits canned in syrup (the first two clauses aren't grammatically parallel).

Two of Schwarzbein’s rules for protein consumption include: “Eat only lean meats” and “Never eat a protein by itself”. Well, look, you wouldn’t eat a meat protein by itself if you ate it with its fat, would you? Schwarzbein rightly dismisses food combining but then insists we should always eat fat, protein, and carbohydrate at each meal, so that they help each other metabolise. And she wants us to eat at least five meals and snacks a day. But I think she underestimates how long it takes food to digest, particularly protein and fats. If you have bacon and egg for breakfast and salad for lunch, I believe that the carbohydrates in the salad will join in the digestive process that is still consuming the breakfast. After all, we know that a protein breakfast will keep us going for hours, which suggests that it’s being metabolised throughout that time. But bacon is out anyway, because Diana tells us to avoid red meat.

Why have I spent so much time reviewing a book I did not like? Because I want to put healthy people off wasting their money and time on it. If I were to recommend an equivalent, much superior, book, it would be Natural Health and Weight Loss by Barry Groves.

Last edited by green team; 11-04-2011 at 07:21 AM..
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Old 11-04-2011, 01:31 PM   #2
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Thank you for a great review!
Very helpful,I have the book,but never read it.Now I may skip it altogether!
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Old 11-25-2011, 02:24 PM   #3
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Great review and thanks so much. Yes, I have the book; however, I think I will not spend time in the near future reading it. I just had a tough time picking it up to read so now that seems like a good thing.
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