Top critical review
Way too long ! And so much pseudo science.
January 22, 2020
Ben Greenfield has written a big book. I've been reading his newsletter for quite some time now and followed him on MindValley. Undoubtedly he lives a healthy lifestyle and has some good advice.
But I have a few issues with his book. (note; this review has been edited to reflect how unhappy I am with the book, after reading almost all of it over the course of several days, and the rating went from 2 to 1)
1- WAY TOO LONG
The book should have been much more concise and shorter. The author just writes for the pleasure of adding strings of words (or listening to himself?). Let me give you an example :on page 436 he writes "Are there other tactics I could use behind those I've mentioned above? Sure, I could go out and buy the fancy under-desk cycling machine I saw a few weeks ago in the back of the airline magazine, I could slap some gravity boots on the old pull-up bar for some Batman-style decompression, and I could probably even hire a Zen master bodyworker to gently massage my tight traps while I'm hunched over the keyboard. But what I've shared with you are the tried-and-true tools that have worked best for me without littering my office with every biohack known to man. For even more, listen to my podcast "The Healthy Writer : How to Keep Your Keyboard, Mouse, Laptop and Writing Habits from Destroying Your Health"" and read the book Deskbound by Kelly Starrett (..)"
In this paragraph, not only there's zero useful information, only some random comparisons/metaphors/simili but Ben tells us to listen to more and read more. I already have 600+ pages to read and I need to read more? And that's not an isolated example. You can find page after page of such verbosity.
I also dislike the college kid humor peppered through the book, often with sexual innuendo, but that's just me. Example, page 22 :"You have a second brain, and that second brain is not in your head. Think lower. OK, fellas, not that low. Up a bit higher. Yes, the second brain is in your gut". I don't find this funny, plus this could have been shortened to "You have a second brain which is in your gut." 32 words & 159 characters for an idea that takes 10 words and 45 characters. If I'm correct, my version is 3,53 times shorter. 640 pages divided by 3,53? 181 pages.
2- NO MENTION OF STUDIES EXCEPT ONLINE
When science is mentioned it's in a way which is not academic at all. "One small study showed that..." "One small study also found that"...."Another study showed that..." No author, no date, no idea about the sample size, no footnote. When there's more detail, for instance in the paragraph about sex that describes "a big observational study on 1,226 men aged seventy or above" (page 455) it turns out that the conclusion quoted by Ben is exactly the one you can find in the abstract on PubMed : "We found a consistent association among older men followed over two years between the decline of sexual activity and desire, but not in erectile dysfunction, with a decrease in serum T" which looks like he did not read the study but just the abstract.
NOT ALL STUDIES ARE THE SAME
In any way, if I compare this to Dr Peter Attia (mentioned in the book, a MD specialized in aging well that I also follow) content, the difference in scientific knowledge is abysmal. Attia is too technical, Greenfield not enough. (EDIT) in response to this review, Ben Greenfield stated that he "wanted to dive more into the practical info and not gum up too many of the pages with nitty-gritty study details". The problem with that is, you need to login to a website (using your Amazon order reference) and then you are lucky if you find the link to the part of the book you are reading because there a many links, without any indication of which part of the chapter they refer to. When I read a book, I don't want to have to go online to see if where it's coming from. Writing "a study has proven this and that" when it has a sample size of 22 individuals is not the same as, say, the China study with a much bigger and longer sample. Additionnally, just because something is published does not mean it is correct. Stanford's Dr Ioannadis demonstrated years ago why most published research findings are false : cherry picking, poor use of statistics etc. Presenting all type of studies as equal is not adequate, but due to the lack of proper quotes you have no way of knowing what is what, without the extra step of going online.
SOME (MANY?) OF THE QUOTED STUDIES ARE JUST HYPOTHETICAL
The final straw is that while many studies are purely hypothetical and usually state it clearly, Ben doesn't relay that. For instance; the study titled "Selection in Europeans on Fatty Acid Desaturases Associated with Dietary Changes" concludes that "We hypothesize that the selective patterns observed in Europeans were driven by a change in dietary composition of fatty acids following the transition to agriculture, resulting in ...)" In Greenfield"s book, this translates into "if you have (European) ancestry, you most likely can't convert ALA into usable DHA and EPA.". There's a big gap between "we hypothesize that.." and "you most likely.." and that gap is the difference between science and folk science. But maybe I found the wrong study linked to that part ? Sorry, I forgot I had to do that work myself.
Talking about science, there's too much confusion or imprecision at times. Page 19, Ben advises to "avoid Toxins". "Colognes, perfumes, brake dust, smog, heavy metal and even christmas-tree shaped car air fresheners contain toxins that can drastically affect neurotransmitters production...". It sounds good, except that in science, toxins are only the molecules produced by living organisms: snake venom, fish poison etc. Artificial molecules that might be harmful are not toxins, they are called toxicants. Wrong wording is not a big deal; you may say. In my view it is, in a book that claims to rely so heavily on science. Either it's scientific or it's not. Or poorly edited. One mistake is not a big deal, but there are several "pop science" mistakes like that in the book.
4- PSEUDO SCIENCE
Sometimes the text is actually pure pseudo-science nonsense. And I am surprised that MDs would recommend this book. Example, the "Cleansing Detox Juice" recipe described page 291, which will "knock out just about any major toxins that are floating around in your system". This is nonsense. Which toxins exactly? How do they "float"? How does this knocking out work? We have no idea but Ben Greenfield knows. The problem is that there's no scientific, credible evidence that detox food/juices work at all. According to The Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, "the handful of studies (on detox diets) that have been published suffer from significant methodological limitations including small sample sizes, sampling bias, lack of control groups, reliance on self-report and qualitative rather than quantitative measurements." According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, "A 2015 review concluded that there was no compelling research to support the use of “detox” diets for eliminating toxins from the body." Verdict? Junk science right there. It does not mean that Ben's Juice is bad for your body (garlic, ginger, turmeric, etc). It means that his reason for saying it is good, is completely wrong.
5- POORLY STRUCTURED INFORMATION
The information is scattered. If you take the example of the gut, it's mentioned in several parts of the book. So either this information is duplicated (and at times it is), or it's scattered and I have to recompile it myself. Granted, Ben states in the opening that you should not read the book cover to cover, and that it's more of a cookbook: pick the recipes according to taste. Well, it does not make any sense to me. I don't want to wait until I read the whole thing from cover to cover, in order to have a holistic view of how to be in good shape and prepare my future. In the same way that I don't want to read all the recipes in a cookbook before I start cooking.
6- ONE PIECE OF INFORMATION CUT IN DIFFERENT PIECES
- Page 84, Ben tells us to get curcumin, the active substance in turmeric which has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. - Page 534 we learn that "an effective dose is 1,000 mg but doses as high as 1,500 mg can be absorbed without any negative side effect".
- Page 102 tells us that "an effective dose is up to 8g a day". That's quite an increase between 1,000 mg to 8,000 mg. Which is it?
- Page 264 we learn that we should actually take a curcumin supplement based on Meriva SF
- Page 156 tells us that the dose for this product is 1,000 mg
5 different pages for one single topic. How difficult was it to write ONE page about this and reference it throughout the book? This is just an example by the way, there are other cases like this one.
6- INCOMPLETE INFORMATION...BUT NOT ONLY
I don't want to go into the curcumin problem but Meriva is not the only provider: Bioperine, CurcuWin, Longvida, NovaSol, and Theracurmin are also good. Also worth noting, the claim relayed by Ben that Meriva's product increases bioavailability 29 times can't be taken at face value. According to Pure Prescriptions "what the product actually does is increase the concentration of the phase II metabolic products, namely the glucuronides and sulfates, which are the inactive forms of Curcumin. These glucuronides neither display activity against cancer cells nor inhibit pro-inflammatory NFkB. Their bioavailability claim is based on a single human study involving only nine subjects divided in three arms of the study (three subjects each)".
So the advice here is scattered, incomplete, and apparently not perfectly exact.
It's bad, because you'll often find throughout the book phrases like on page 149 "research has shown that...". Well, we can't say something like that if it's does not meet the standards of science. Ben should have written "According to certain studies, it is possible that..." unless it's a randomized double blind placebo control study with compelling evidence.
7- WEIRD ADVICE
Some advice is just weird. I used to be a (deep) freediving instructor so I know a couple things about that topic. At some point in the book you'll find Static Apnea Tables with the advice to practice apnea on your couch (which is fine) or while driving. Static apnea practice WHILE DRIVING? Are you kidding me? Not only I find this useless because the practice of apnea exercises requires a certain peace of mind and focus that you can't achieve while driving, but it also creates significant changes in your perception and brain and can be downright dangerous if you are driving. Don't practice apnea tables while driving!
8- BIOHACKS, OR COMMON KNOWLEDGE?
Many "biohacks" described are common knowledge ( or easy to find on the web if you are interested in that sort of things). Stretching and movement at your desk? Come on. A google image search will give you a gazillion results in one second. Same for the food tables (see picture) which don't teach you much : showing pictograms of food in a table, what useful purpose does it serve? In the 2 weeks workout there's nothing to learn there if you are already into wellbeing and performance : cold showers, yoga, heavy weight lifting, burpees... As for the idea of taking multiple cold showers a day, excuse me, in my office there are no showers. Countless so-called hacks like this work only if you are a home based person. If you are working in an office, a good part of the book is not applicable to you, sorry.
9- VOODOO THINKING
There's science, and there's voodoo, or magical thinking. When I read on page 267 about sound healing that "tones that promote healing, happiness and vitality can produce surprising effects and even allow DNA strands to repair themselves," I know that despite the appearances Ben does not agree with science. I should have known better : he writes page 8 that he "quickly became disillusioned with the failures of modern medicine" and operates 'with a dose of ancestral wisdom and modern science". It appears that the dose of modern science is homeopathic, in other words very minimal and diluted to the point of being useless. (if you believe that homeopathy is a proven fact, buy this book because it is not about science but about beliefs).
10-BUT BEN LOOKS SO YOUNG, HE MUST BE RIGHT
Ben Greenfield looks young? Well, he is young. He's 39. By comparison, Peter Attia is almost 47 years old. Ben's masterclass on Mindvalley was called "the science of living longer". If he was 90 and looked like he's 50 I would have more trust in the fact that he knows how to help you live longer (but that would be anecdotal and not scientific).. I know scores of 40 years old athletes who look great and lean and are in great shape. Go to your gym and you'll find them. That does not mean Ben's always wrong though of course - I'm just saying that his argument "I look so young" is not enough because he is, well, young. When I was 39 I did not look much older than him. I have a friend who's 50, does not do any sport and drinks often, but looks like she's 40. Good genes lottery.
Again, this does not mean that Ben's ideas are bad : there are a ton of very good points in the book, but the way they are presented, plus the fake veil of science, just do not do it for me.
So in summary this 600 pages book should have been edited to be 200 pages long maximum and perhaps I would have rated it 3 stars, or most likely 2 because of the lack of scientific approach despite the appearances. The editor should have asked the author to slim this brick to an acceptable size, or given that task to someone proficient in editing.
I don't doubt that Ben worked hard on this, but working hard on something does not necessarily make it good. In this current form it's just an expensive waste of time. Whatever good information there is, is buried in tons of useless verbiage and average or poor quality information which looks like the result of long days of internet searches by an amateur. And frankly quoting your sources on the same page is just a normal thing to do. Well, it would have added another 100 pages to the book... I will keep it on my coffee table but I don't expect to read it in full anytime soon : the prospect is daunting.
Last thing, I find it really hilarious that people leave good reviews based on the fact that the book is "coffee table size" and "hard cover" and "has colors" or "is concise". Seriously? Either these reviews are from Ben's friends or the reviewers have no idea what the book is about - which makes their review worthless in both cases. Plus, the printing is not that good, the colors are just accents (1 color per chapter) so they don't bring any value and the paper is wavy (see picture). Not a big deal though.
My review is honest, I read regularly Ben Greenfield's newsletter (but I'll unsubscribe today) but I have never met him, I have no book or service to sell, I bought the book at the full price and after reading a good part of it I am quite unhappy with it, but I can't return because I've made comments in the margins.
SHOULD YOU BUY THIS BOOK ?
If you like magic thinking, believe that science is not serious but like to see scientific studies quoted, and can't perform an internet search, OR if you absolutely love Ben and consider he's right in everything he says, buy this book, it will comfort you in your opinions.
If you are really interested in reading good, serious science backed advice about living a long lasting healthy and well performing lifestyle, don't buy it.