July 11, 2013

(+++) BE WELL

The Sugar Detox: Lose Weight, Feel Great, and Look Years Younger. By Brooke Alpert, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., and Patricia Farris, M.D., F.A.A.D. Da Capo. $24.99.

Tai Chi—The Perfect Exercise: Finding Health, Happiness, Balance, and Strength. By Arthur Rosenfeld. Da Capo. $19.99.

     Sugar is bad for you. Stop eating it. End of book.

     Well, no – that would not fill 282 pages. But it does encapsulate the message of nutrition consultant Brooke Alpert and skin-care specialist Patricia Farris. The two argue in The Sugar Detox that sugar is addictive; that people need to go cold turkey, as if they were quitting smoking, to break the sugar habit; and that the energizing effect of sugar is not as good as the energizing effect of vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, antioxidants and fibers. All this can be a, shall we say, bitter pill to swallow, and in fact the authors overstate their basically reasonable case in order to make their points emphatically and persuade people to try their three-day no-sugar diet and three-day regimen of such skin treatments as sea-salt baths and black-tea masks. Like other extremists, Alpert and Farris take an all-or-nothing approach to their subject – but it is worth noting that extremists are not necessarily wrong. Much of what the authors say has been said, in different forms, by many others; the material is simply packaged differently here. Alpert and Farris tell readers to eat lots of spinach and other dark leafy greens; consume plenty of broccoli, cabbage, kale and other cruciferous vegetables; eat seaweed and seafood, legumes and nuts, cottage cheese and unflavored yogurt, whole grains and citrus fruits; and drink water, red wine and green tea. There is nothing revolutionary or even very unusual about any of this. It is in their declaration of war against sugar, rather than their recommendations of what to consume instead of it, that Alpert and Farris are most intense. They are on the dictatorial side in their demands, as when they use some rather dubious and disputed science to declare diet soda just as bad as sugar-sweetened soda and proclaim, “This means no diet soda!” – complete with italics and exclamation point. They are against bananas, pineapple and watermelon – too sugary. They oppose raisins, prunes and other dried fruit. No corn. No potatoes. No sweet potatoes. No winter squash. And they present their recommendations in a lecturing, often hectoring tone that will not be to many people's, ahem, taste: “We limit the amount of fructose you can have.” “White rice seems so harmless, yet it’s like sugar in a bowl.” “Fruit juice is unnecessary and we prefer that you eat a piece of fruit…” “Sodas, be they diet or regular, are completely off limits…” “If you haven’t yet done the 3-Day Sugar Fix, you’ll want to start with that.” The Sugar Detox comes with recipes, menu plans, and a variety of suggestions designed to help readers follow the authors’ prescriptions. But they are prescriptions, of the “do this because we say it’s good for you” variety – suitable mainly for the same sorts of people who never question their doctors’ advice and simply do what they are told to do because others have greater knowledge than they themselves possess. If and only if you are comfortable being lectured to and instructed as to how to eat and how not to eat, the clarity and strong advocacy of The Sugar Detox will be appealing; otherwise, the book will strike a series of sour notes, less in what it says than in how it says it.

     In contrast, the narrative of Tai Chi—The Perfect Exercise is as gentle as the regimen itself. “But Is It the Right Choice?” asks one subhead, and Taoist monk Arthur Rosenfeld immediately answers, “It is if we like the idea of developing our body and mind together.” Rosenfeld delves a bit into the history of tai chi: “…[T]he spiral is nature’s archetypal shape. …In recognition of this natural design, tai chi movements – particularly Chen style, the founding family’s original art – characteristically describe spirals.” But most of the book explains how to practice tai chi and why it works – sometimes in language that appears to be unintentionally amusing: “Holding too much stiffness in our body, we are like a lollipop that has turned from candy to iron.” A series of “Explorations,” each of them illustrated, is used to show tai chi positions and what they are intended to accomplish. Quotations from the Tao Te Ching set the mood and tone of each chapter of the book. The chapter titles themselves reinforce the message: “Secrets, Spirals, Mindfulness, and Water.” So do the subheads: “Creation, Duality, and the Eternal Balance of the Wuji Mind.” It is absolutely necessary to accept an Oriental attitude toward life, if not outright Oriental religion, in order to make the most of this book, which is peppered with comments and anecdotes about the Taoist creation story, the importance of “no plans, no attachments, no goals,” and a reminder that “tai chi sets a very high philosophical and physical standard.” This is a mind-body discipline, a form of psychosomatic movement rather than what Westerners think of as an exercise. Its deceptively simple movements, its emphasis on balance and on inner peace rather than turmoil, make tai chi an attractive alternative to more-vigorous exercise for many people, and it has been shown especially effective for the elderly and those with physical limitations. What makes it “perfect” for Rosenfeld, however, may not make it perfect for readers, since the author emphasizes again and again that tai chi is not just exercise: “There may be no physical practice anywhere more closely entwined with a system of philosophy than the martial art of tai chi is with Lao Tzu’s little book, the Tao Te Ching.” Readers interested in relaxation, for example, need to read a chapter entitled “Sitting with the Lesser Heavenly Circle” in order to get to the words, “You may experience relief from any chronic pain, a lessening of anxiety, an increase in your daily energy, a resistance to negative or off-balancing emotions, a new clarity and focus in your thinking, and improved concentration.” These are indeed the outcomes that most people hope for from tai chi. The question for readers is whether they will be comfortable with the amount of time and space that Rosenfeld devotes to the tai chi context compared with the amount that he spends on the mechanics of the discipline. Readers seeking the spiritual connections of tai chi will be far happier with this book than those who see the practice as something closer to a gentle whole-body exercise than to the expression of an overall approach to life.

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