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Posted on 19 Oct 2021 in Non-Fiction |

NORMAN SWAN So You Think You Know What’s Good For You? Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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Dr Norman Swan investigates the evidence for common assumptions we make about what is and isn’t good for our health.

Despite its 432 pages, a brief description of Swan’s book could be ‘a health compendium for busy people’. Part memoir, part handbook, it ranges across 160 topics organised into six parts. If you are curious, as I am, about what makes people tick, Swan’s revelations concerning his family background and early life influences offer a deeper understanding of his motivation as a  health educator.

He starts by telling us that he was born in Glasgow to a desperately poor Jewish family. His father was on the dole, and both parents smoked 20 cigarettes a day, as did all his family, outside and in.

On the cooker … is what my mother called the ‘chip pan’: a pot covered in oil splatter … used twice a day to fry chips for lunch and dinner … Vegetables are boiled to a mush and it’s to be years before I hear there’s such a thing as olive oil.

At medical school he learned that Glasgow had the world record for heart disease and the life expectancy gap between its rich and poor suburbs was around 25 years.

I tell you this because it’s the driver of this book. What drove this lifestyle was lack of knowledge, lack of money, conformity to the norm, and a swirl of lives where people didn’t feel they had much control over their destiny. I was desperate to escape and gain that control.

He tells us that his first career choice was acting, which he abandoned for medicine. Has he managed to satisfy both ambitions by becoming a health broadcaster?

Swan is aware of how time constrained most of us are when it comes to acquiring information about our health. With this in mind, he structures his material into short sections, each starting with a quick grab summarising the message:

If you’re interested enough, you’ll read on and read the rest of that chapter, but if you only read the summary at the top, you’ll get what you need to know and then you can move on.

Taking the ‘reading on’ option, readers will learn what the current research shows. Does it provide evidence of the benefits claimed by vested interests or popularly believed, or not? A comprehensive reference list at the end allows readers to dig deeper into Swan’s claims and to test his conclusions.

The cover promotes the book as ‘the ultimate health guide from Australia’s most trusted doctor’, yet Swan is at pains to dispel any image of himself as a ‘medical guru’ whose word constitutes ultimate truth. On the contrary, he writes:

In a sense, the way I’ve written this is, you know, don’t necessarily trust me – trust the information I’m giving you – and feel free to question.

His conversational, plain-English style is like being talked to by a well-informed friend who has your best health interests at heart. Topic titles are catchy and invite curiosity. Those I found particularly intriguing include: ‘Is it fat or Game of Thrones?’, ‘Immune boosters, Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos’, ‘The control factor (this is the stress bit)’, ‘Life shorteners hunt in packs’, ‘Mindfulness – does it work?’, ‘Insta sex: beware the algorithm’.

I quickly turned to Part 5, entitled ‘Dominated by devices’, driven by my concern for my eight-year-old granddaughter’s growing addiction to ‘screen time’. Skipping Part 6, I moved on to Part 7, ‘What about the kids?’, turning straight to the promising sub-headings ‘Apps for children’ and ‘Setting screen rules for them, and us’ – I recommend these sections as valuable reading for those who share my concerns.

On diet, Swan tells us: ‘The world is obsessed with nutrients when we should be thinking big.Based on the evidence available, he shows how what we eat affects our health, citing the most reliable evidence selectively so as not to exhaust his readers. When it comes to vegetables, green is a good colour, red is a very good colour, while brown is not so good, and he advises cutting back on high-heat cooking that browns food. His closing remarks on antioxidants are:

Save your money … and spend it on virgin olive oil, and red, purple and orange vegetables, watermelon for dessert and a Mediterranean cookbook.

In other words, when it comes to nutrition, there is no magic bullet. When it comes to immune boosters, he tells us: ‘I got a surprise with this one. I thought it was mythology until I really got into the evidence.’ Definitely recommended as a ‘read on’ piece.

Swan intersperses his health narrative with memoir, drawing on personal experiences to explain a particular medical issue. For example, when dealing with the theory of PTSD, which he cites as the ‘most extreme form of anxiety’, he tells us he is generally not an anxious person and his family looks to him to stay cool in a crisis. Yet he says he has felt repeatedly paralysed, at times so badly that he wants to ‘double over in a crouch position’. The most recent episode lasted more than a year. Instances include when, on a family holiday in Italy, his daughter Anna had a catastrophic cycling accident and suffered a life-threatening brain injury; when a close relationship fell apart; and when his mother died.

Health products are promoted to meet our yearning to be perfect in every way. You too can have perfect health, a perfect sex life, be perfect parents, have perfect children, if only you take this supplement, this protein, that vitamin and mineral booster. Swan’s book seeks to counteract the ‘bullshit’, as he puts it,through common sense, evidence-based arguments.

In addressing the ‘the whole wellness thing’, he says:

Intuitively you know this is bullshit, don’t you – this being that somewhere out there there’s someone who wakes up every morning feeling refreshed, bounces out of bed, opens the curtains and looks out, skin glowing, abdomen tight and flat and can’t wait to capture the day.

It’s fine, he says, to have this aspiration, and some days it may even be true, but not every day. He urges us not to let our image of the ideal self add to our feelings of failure when adversity strikes. Life is, after all, a series of ups and downs, and we get too anxious about ‘the downs’ when they are mostly normal.

Norman Swan So You Think You Know What’s Good For You? Hachette 2021 432pp $39.99

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights, teaching and conflict resolution.

You can buy So You Think You Know What’s Good For You? from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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