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A.J. Jacobs Interviews the Author of His "Favorite Health Book in Years"


From A.J. Jacobs: There are several reasons why The Good News About What's Bad for You . . . The Bad News About What's Good for You is my favorite health book in years. First of all, it gives the blessing to whiskey, coffee and chocolate (in moderation and all that blah blah blah). But second, it cuts through the pseudoscience behind the health hype – the kind that says you will live to 143 years if you eat fermented chia seeds every day. And third, this book reveals to you the real secret – which is that there are no real secrets. There's just science, which is slow and plodding and sometimes flawed, but it's the best we've got.

I'm thrilled I'm able to ask Jeff Wilser some questions.

A.J. Jacobs: It does seem that so many things -- like Soy -- are good one week, bad the next. What do you think explains this?

Jeff Wilser: It's a great question. It's maybe the core question of the book. What I found is that nearly every food, exercise, habit, or even a mindset (like anxiety) has a tradeoff. Aspirin can thin our blood and trim the risk of heart attack, but it also boosts the risks of internal bleeding. So one study will say something like, "Aspirin helps prevent heart attacks!" and the next study will say, "Aspirin causes internal bleeding!" Both are correct. So is Aspirin "good" or "bad"? It can be both, depending on the context and how you frame it. And if we don't read deeper than the headlines, we can make some questionable choices.

A.J. Jacobs: So, just to clarify, you're not saying that everything "healthy" is actually unhealthy, and vice verse?

Jeff Wilser: I wish it were that simple, right? Alas. As you point out, the research suggests that much of what's labeled "Bad" also has a sneaky upside, and much of what's labeled "Good" could have some hidden dangers. So maybe we shouldn't feel so guilty about eating steak, chocolate, or eggs. But this doesn't mean that up is down or black is white and now we should throw our broccoli in the trash. (If only…)

A.J. Jacobs: You ate almost nothing but Oreos, Snickers, and whiskey for 30 days. Are you insane? Why would you do this? Are you advising America to go on a Junk Food Cleanse?

Jeff Wilser: It's an admittedly silly stunt. I ate a diet of mostly junk food for a month.... and I lost 11 pounds. There's one catch: I tracked every calorie. I followed strict portion control. (When I go to my grave, I will know that "1 serving size" of Cheeze-Its is exactly 27 Cheeze-Its.) The goal was to prove a larger point. In the world of health and dieting, we get obsessed with the nuance of questions like, "What's your macronutrient profile?" or "GMO or non-GMO?" or "Paleo vs. Plant?" These aren't bad questions, but we quickly lose the forest for the trees. I wanted to show that for the narrow purposes of Weight Gain or Weight Loss, it's still mostly Calories In, Calories Out. (Junk food, though, is still junk. I don't recommend a Twinkie Diet.)

A.J. Jacobs: Are you a doctor? Nutritionist? No offense, but why should we listen to you?!

Jeff Wilser: Fair question! As I say in the book, I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist, and I haven't even seen that many episodes of House. I'm a journalist. And I'm curious. So to make sense out of all this back-and-forth, I spoke to a small army of health experts, and I tried my best to present my findings in a way that people can relate to.

A.J. Jacobs: How have your habits changed since writing this?

Jeff Wilser: I eat more eggs, I eat less cereal, I take more naps, I feel more at ease with being stressed, I don't feel much guilt about guilty pleasures, I don't worry about salt, I rarely buy "fat free" anymore, I cook with butter, I will never even *think* about using a standing desk, I think I'm healthier, and I drink more whiskey. Well okay I've always enjoyed whiskey.

A.J. Jacobs: Is this an anti-health book?

Jeff Wilser: Not at all. I'm not recommending that we sit on our couches and eat a bunch of junk. (I looked long and hard for a study showing that we should just loaf around on couches. Tragically, I found none.) I'm pro-health. But it is an "anti-fad" book. I'm not a huge believer in the new super-foods of the week or diets of the month.

A.J. Jacobs: Wait! Didn't a new study just come out saying that bacon is giving us cancer?

Jeff Wilser: That's a great example of how health news can be so misleading. When the study came out, you'd see headlines like "Bacon Causes Cancer." Is this true? Yes and no. When you dig deeper, you see that the study suggests that bacon does, in fact, slightly increase the risk of colorectal caner. It boosts the risk by 18%. And at first that sounds like a lot, right?

A.J. Jacobs: It does.

Jeff Wilser: Then when you look deeper, you see that the *absolute risk* of someone getting colorectal cancer—even if they don't eat bacon—is 5% in the first place, give or take. And if you eat bacon, that 5% gets increased by 18%. To geek out just for a second with the math, the *new* risk of cancer—if you eat bacon—is 5% multiplied by 1.18, which is…6%. So a more accurate headline to this study might be "Bacon could boost risk of colorectal cancer from 5% to 6%," but what editor is printing that? For some, that increase from 5% to 6% might be enough to quit bacon. Fair enough. For me, it's a rounding error, and I'll have another slice.

A.J. Jacobs: You poke a lot of fun at kale...

Jeff Wilser: I do take some cheap shots at kale, because, well, there's a NATIONAL KALE DAY! It's not that kale's bad for you, but it's not that much better really, than other leafy greens like spinach. It's not a miracle food. Also, studies show that people who eat kale are 717% more likely to die of smugness.

A.J. Jacobs: Are health nuts going to like or hate this book?

Jeff Wilser: It's a cheeky title with gobs of facts that might surprise people, but the core message of the book, I think, should resonate with both health enthusiasts and health skeptics: Don't get distracted by fads, appreciate the nuance and tradeoffs, read deeper than the headlines, and, of course, as you point out in your own (excellent/inspiring/hilarious) health book, you can't go too far astray by eating and exercising in moderation. And also…there is never any Bad News about A.J. Jacobs. This was a real treat and an honor. Thanks again.


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