Getty ImagesShould you go organic? Take a supplement? Stick to a "clean" diet? Author Nathaniel Johnson puts hippie wisdom to the test. When your first book is titled All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier, you're clearly not afraid to cast a wide net. San Francisco-based journalist Nathanael Johnson, 34, had a hippie childhood in California's Sierra foothills, but his skeptical streak kept him from unconditionally embracing his family's organic, crunchy-granola, back-to-the-land ideology. After a stint at an Idaho newspaper, Johnson went to journalism school at UC Berkeley, where he found a mentor in Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food ), who inspired him to reexamine his heritage of natural enthusiasms with newly sharpened critical faculties. All Natural, recently published by Rodale, is a bracingly smart and witty inquiry into how, in the face of conflicting assumptions and evidence, we can ever decide the best way to go about doing things like having a baby or cooking dinner.-Joseph Hooper
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ELLE: This battle of worldviews between the natural and the technological has been playing out in your head since you were a kid. How does the idea of hewing to the natural help us figure out how to live our everyday lives?
Nathanael Johnson: The tendency is either to totally dismiss the idea that what's natural is good for us or to embrace it uncritically. The trick is to pick apart in a rigorous way what makes sense from what doesn't. I love finding that scientist who has an interesting or contrarian view.
ELLE: Okay, let's get down to specifics. How should we eat?
NJ: Keep it simple. You probably can't go wrong eating less sugar, fat, and salt, and the way to do that is to eat more fresh food. But after doing the research, one of the big conclusions I've come to is, there isn't one correct weight-loss diet that works for everyone. In studies done by Christopher Gardner at Stanford, some women lost weight on low-carb diets and some gained-and the same with the low-fat diet. So you should be willing to tinker and experiment and embrace the uniqueness of your own body.
ELLE: You were often the fall guy for utopian big ideas. You write about going through a raw-food phase in high school: "I'd become an invalid, stricken by my expectation of perfect health."
NJ: And I've seen that happen to lots of people who are entranced by this idea of the natural-that if they just eat the right things, they'll be living an amazing life. And then they end up becoming so focused and worried about every little thing they put in their mouth that their lives become objectively worse.
ELLE: One of the heroes in your book is a UC Davis researcher who basically says that nature's perfect health food is milk-mother's milk for babies, anyway.
NJ: I drink whole milk, and I drink it without fear, even though it has a lot of saturated fat, which is considered pure evil by the nutritional orthodoxy. But when you look specifically at the research on dairy consumption and heart disease, there's no association.
ELLE: So how should we make our own food choices?
NJ: Pay attention to how you feel after you eat instead of outsourcing to some dietary guru. Does that oily slice of pizza imbue you with a sense of energy and élan, or does it make you feel bloated or terrible? There's some basic feedback we've relied on as a species for the past 100,000 years that's worked pretty well for us.
ELLE: How about all the research that's coming out now about the importance of our gut bacteria in maintaining our health and possibly even our weight?
NJ: The scientists are telling us that the bacteria are in charge! But what do we do with that information? You can go out and spend your money on probiotic capsules filled with "good" bacteria-but we have no idea whether the bacteria survive to make it into our gut. I'd rather eat yogurt with live cultures-it tastes good, and people have been eating it forever. The whole emerging story about the gut is another argument in favor of eating a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and grains, a diverse range of fibers to feed the diverse microflora in our bodies.
ELLE: I take it that you're not a huge supplement fan. You write that, growing up, some of your friends' parents who were chasing after the perfect health regimen looked "haunted and delicate."
NJ: What I was really seeing in those people were symptoms of some kind of mental illness, and one manifestation was taking every herbal remedy on the face of the earth. Too often, I think, supplements are a device for extracting money from the credulous. The money would be better spent on taking a two-week vacation or eating better food. My wife and I get a box of fruits and vegetables delivered to us every week, and that forces us to eat them all or they'll rot in the bottom of the box.
ELLE: Many of us are guilty of paying too little, not too much, attention to what we eat. You write about a food industry that has gotten very good at exploiting that.
NJ: The fascinating and shocking thing for me is that when you look at the neuroscience, pleasure and craving are actually two different things. When you're lifting one handful after another of potato chips to your mouth, you're really eating in the absence of pleasure pretty quickly. The brain is flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is related to similar activities-being unable to stop pulling the lever on a slot machine-and sex and drug addictions. If we could actually slow down enough to notice when things stop bringing us pleasure, we'd eat way more healthily.
ELLE: As you describe it in the book, your marriage is a kind of lab where you test what's practical and what's not in the natural department.
NJ: While my parents were hippies, my wife's parents are Fort Lauderdale Republicans. My father practices primal therapy, and her father is an orthopedic surgeon. When my in-laws finally came out to meet my parents, it was like, "All right, we're going to meet the Fokkers."
ELLE: One big issue was how your wife was going to give birth to your daughter.
NJ: I think the whole book was motivated in large part by me thinking about having a family. It really forced me to put my money where my mouth is: "Okay, I have all these strange ideas that I inherited from my parents. Now I've got to choose whether I'm going to put them into practice or not."
ELLE: When you did your research, as you always do, childbirth was one area where the natural ideology really made a lot of sense. Because the medical establishment keeps introducing more helpful technology, like fetal heart monitors, but the end result is an immobilized woman, which gives rise, so you argue, to more cesareans-which, because of the risks of intervention, result in more maternal death and injury.
NJ: It sounds fringy that birth is getting more dangerous, but I think at this point it's well accepted.
ELLE: But your wife wound up giving birth in a hospital.
NJ: We found a program in a hospital in our neighborhood that was pretty much the ideal. You have trained midwives who are very evidence-based helping healthy women give birth naturally, and the obstetricians are only called in if things start to head south.
ELLE: The "natural" line doesn't always pan out so well. You write that natural-philes and alternative-medicine mavens intuitively grasp the big picture but can be sloppy on the details.
NJ: But I always want to balance it out. On the other side, you get "hippie-punching" people who'll say, "These stupid 'natural' people got this little fact wrong about genetically modified foods," without noticing that there is a larger argument about the safety of GMO foods. It's such an unknown. When you alter the DNA of a plant, who knows if you may be creating a toxin or an allergen that could cause problems down the road.
ELLE: You write very eloquently about the need to make sensible choices when we don't have all the answers.
NJ: That's the point I'm grappling toward. The more you cling to certainty, the more you end up shutting out life. The less willing you are to let your kid play outside and possibly fall down and hurt himself, the more possibilities you're cutting off. When I started the book, I knew that the idea that natural meant healthy made some sense and was too easily dismissed by the mainstream. The trick is to come up with answers that find a pragmatic balance.
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