“Something To Chew On” by Mike Gibney [Book Review]

Dr. Mike Gibney, an accomplished researcher (mainly now in the really fascinating area of nutritional genomics) and professor who has served on high-level committees/advisory boards and is involved in other cutting-edge science projects has published a new book titled “Something to Chew On: Challenging Controversies in Food and Health.” You can find summaries of each chapter and places to purchase on his blog.

With such an interesting background, there is no surprise that this book does not disappoint. It is fully referenced and packed with science, but still appropriate for a lay audience. In my opinion, this would be absolutely perfect for undergraduate health programs – if I was a lecturer I would certainly add it to my curriculum – and at 156 pages it could still be one of several.

Gibney is not afraid to butt heads with ideology, which is incredibly refreshing. For a nutrition book, obesity of course is a discussion, but there are many other components to nutritional science addressed that are usually absent in books meant for popular consumption (or if they are written about, there is no scientific support for what is written). I won’t summarize every chapter because he has already done so on his blog, but I will note some of the things I found most important and some questions that linger.

An apparent major theme of the book is a science-based critique of agricultural romanticism. Right away in chapter 1 he begins by dismissing Michael Pollan’s rule of never eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t. This transitions to a chapter that debunks dangers of pesticides (in which ‘natural’ and ‘conventional’ are equivalent and undergo rigorous toxicological analyses), food additives (in which Gibney’s group has done research on food colors), and differences in nutrient quality and taste between organic and conventionally grown food. Of course, organic foods require more resources, thus Gibney emphasizes that there are positives and negatives to each type of agriculture. Later in the book, he points out research on the nuances of food miles and that the transportation contribution of foods to greenhouse gas emissions is perhaps insignificant and of course would greatly limit our food choices.

The 3rd chapter on genetically modified foods is crucial to the lay reader to put in perspective genetic modifications. Breeding has been ongoing for thousands of years, and it and other conventional methods produce changes in potentially thousands of genes vs altering one or several with genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is much more controlled, and importantly, tested for safety (contrary to what many anti-GM advocates state). Gibney gives some interesting examples of conventionally produced foods that made a lot of people ill because they are not rigorously tested. Major orgs like the National Academy of Sciences here in the US have reviewed GMO research and conclude that it is no more risky than conventional methods. The force at which people oppose GM foods is incredible, irrational, fundamentalist, and this is reinforced in later chapters on politics and developing countries. Side notes: a great multi-disciplinary resource to learn more about GM foods and science is biofortified.org (also their research database). Also, check out Kevin Folta’s handy table comparing conventional and GM methods.

Gibney covers nutrigenetics (personalized nutrition) in a ‘be wary but it is promising’ way. He highlights 3 examples of current examples that show promise- the MTHFR 677TT genotype & riboflavin for blood pressure (I will blog about a recent update to the study he cites soon), a retrospective analysis of 5 SNPs for weight loss in Christopher Gardner et al.’s ATOZ study, which is still unpublished (surprised to see no criticism or note of caution of this by Gibney though), and a discussion of GWAS in nutrition. My note: I found a recent study on salivary amylase gene copy number and glycemic response to starch very interesting. Gibney calls for interventional studies before personalized nutrition will be of relevance, but discusses how even then it will be difficult to truly implement it when the time is here.

The obesity section is interesting and perhaps the only that contrasted significantly with my current understanding, regarding calories vs exercise in the cause of the obesity epidemic. Gibney discusses twin studies that suggest genes explain weight gain variation better than social gradation in an obesogenic environment. Social class seems to play a role, but much lesser, & only if there is a genetic predisposition to obesity. Gibney discusses a study in the UK that shows that as obesity rose, caloric intake didn’t increase, but physical activity has declined. Perhaps things are different there, but in the US, physical activity energy expenditure hasn’t dropped, and a recent meta-analysis of industrialized countries vs developing countries shows no difference in energy expenditure. And, Swinburn, Sacks and Ravussin suggest that increased food intake can uniquely explain obesity in the US. I wonder what Gibney thinks of these studies. This doesn’t mean the current level of activity is sufficient, but I am under the impression that the increase in food intake is really the cause. Importantly, he also covers the topic of obesity bias and the terribly negative perceptions of obese people.

The rest of the book delves into populations that have unique nutritional needs and high malnutrition, including the elderly and the developing world. In industrialized countries most of us enjoy food security, but billions of people on the planet do not. Gibney explores technologies that can improve nutrition of people in these populations and the anti-scientific NGOs and political forces acting against them. The unfortunate reality is that global climate change is going to make things even worse for many impoverished countries. This was unexpectingly my favorite section of the book, and Gibney adds some interesting personal experiences in his involvement in political activities. He also includes a section on research about our flawed perceptions of risk, interjecting thoughts on the precautionary principal in Europe. My perspective on politics, food industry, and health is constantly evolving, and this book provided a valuable one. Gibney points out that of course industry is necessary to improve global nutrition, though I do think it deserves its fair share of criticism too for aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods and distortion of science which isn’t apparent in the book. Some sort of balance is necessary, and my point is that the food industry shouldn’t be thought of as “all or nothing” (let me be clear: I don’t meant to imply that is Gibney’s perspective). Anti-capitalist sentiments generally go hand in hand with a disregard for food technology, unfortunately.

The book provided many new references to explore, and several book recommendations. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in nutrition.

Again, this only a selection of what is discussed in the book, to see additional content see his blog summary.

Follow Dr. Gibney on twitter as well.


Something To Chew On - literally!

  • Steve Parker, M.D.

    Thanks for this thoughtful review.  I hadn’t heard of the book yet.