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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reprogram Your Life: Book Review


Recently I was sent Reprogram Your Life: Bioscience for a Healthier You, by Dr. Steven Willey, MD. What struck me first was just how big the book is.  The hard cover is 293 pages, including the index.  But really, if you are going to reprogram your life, you have to cover a lot of ground.  And cover a lot of ground this book does.

Unlike many of the health books I review that focus exclusively on one thing (fitness, or diet, or stress management, etc.), this one covers it all, and does it very well.

That being said, if you are starting from ground zero, knowing nothing about health and wellness, than I advise you to take your time with this book so you have time to digest it all and not become overwhelmed.  There is a fair amount of science in it, so if you are not interested in the hows or whys, you will probably be tempted to skim parts of it.  But honestly, it seems to me we should all be aware of how our bodies work and the effect our lifestyle choices have on our bodies, don't you think?

Section one generally describes Dr. Willey's approach, the YOU+ Method and how it works.  Section 2 covers nutrition, section 3 focuses on exercise, and section 4 discusses sleep, stress and motivation. 

A central assumption of the YOU+ Method is the importance of insulin control in maintaining health and managing weight.  This is certainly consistent with much of the research I have read recently, and one of the reasons I have cut out sugar and cut down on my carb consumption.  Never worried about heart disease (because of my fitness level and family history), once I started to read about the possible role of insulin in the development of some cancers, I started taking this issue more seriously.

I am impressed that Willey briefly describes how to evaluate the validity of research findings, which is critical for individuals trying to decipher the confusing, and often conflicting headlines about health and nutrition.

Willey's nutrition plan is extremely flexible, which is key for increasing adherence among most individuals.  You can follow the general framework whether you are a carnivore or a vegan. His emphasis on avoiding refined carbs and added sugars, again, is consistent with my own philosophy, based on the research I have read, and unlike many health experts, he also warns about the risks of alcohol consumption, a topic often neglected. 

My one quibble is his section warning about how artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight, based on some studies on diet soda.  This conflicts with the perspective of obesity expert, Yoni Freedhoff, who has extensively reviewed this research and found it all to be highly flawed.  In addition, some of the research he describes indicates a 'theoretical' relationship, not an observed one.  In other words, just because, based on MRI reports, artificial sweeteners don't fully stimulate the reward centre of the brain like real sugar does, does not mean we know anything about how that might affect human behaviour.  Once in a while I will have a diet soda, and I never find that upon finishing it I start binging on sugar because I don't feel adequately 'rewarded'.  I usually have one because I am thirsty and just aren't in the mood for plain water.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that diet soda is certainly not health food, no matter how you look at it, so limiting intake is probably a good thing.

While Willey emphasizes the importance of limiting carbohydrates, he recognizes - unlike many other authors of diet/health books - that a very low-carb diet is difficult for most people to maintain long-term.  What is very unique about his approach, is that he doesn't restrict veggies and fruits at all!

I was also impressed that Willey not only covers the science behind nutrition and weight loss (genetics, gut bacteria, hormones, etc.), but also addresses the social and cultural pressures we face around food.  This is critical, because what and how much we eat is affected by emotions, social customs and a whole host of other factors that are sometimes out of our control.

So what is his eating plan?  Essentially the framework is to consume a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of protein to starch (depending on your individual needs and goals) at each meal, and as many fruits and veggies as you wish.  Dairy is considered protein.  Although he considers potatoes a starch, corn is considered a veggie on this plan.  He also recommends eating whole, rather than processed foods.  I am pleased that he recommends limiting red meat to 1/3 or less of your total protein intake, although I would reduce it even more.  For vegans, beans and nuts are the recommended protein sources.

What's nice is he encourages flexibility, so if your ratio is off at one meal, balance it out by adjusting the ratio on your next meal, this makes it easier for people to accommodate their lifestyles. 

The only other area I disagree with him on is drinking milk.  He suggests having a glass of milk to bump up your protein at a meal.  I don't like this idea that much because many studies have shown that you don't get much satiation from drinking calories, even if the liquid contains protein.  Besides, if you ask me, drinking milk is disgusting.  And keep in mind the only non-dairy milk that has protein is soy milk, which is even more disgusting to drink.  I would suggest a hard boiled egg instead, or some almonds or tofu if you are vegan.

I concur with his advice to eat 3 square meals, and then try to snack on fruits and veggies and/or protein in between.  Personally, I find that whole eat little snacks all day theory doesn't work for me - I end up hungry and grumpy all day - and research shows it doesn't help most people lose weight either.

Aside from food, Willey also covers supplements and explains why isolating compounds from foods (i.e. Vitamin A, resveratrol, etc.) is not the same as consuming them in food, also consistent with the research I have read.

The fitness section is equally as detailed and comprehensive.  He emphasizes the importance of strength training for both weight and well-being (you know I agree about this!), and explains how to put together a training program, in addition to including a few sample workouts.  There are options for those who have access to a gym and those who do not.  Willey also has a whole section about aerobic exercise and recommends you incorporate some into your routine as well, for the health benefits.  This section covers sports nutrition, including how to time your meals around your workouts, what to eat and supplements to take.  He explains the importance of L-Glutamine for recovery, which I already take, and raves about BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) so much, that I went out and bought a bottle right away.

Although in section 4 he covers sleep, he fails to mention that anxiety disorders and clinical depression are common causes of insomnia (I see this all the time with my counselling clients), but his behavioural therapy suggestions are sound advice for dealing with sleep issues.  That being said, if an anxiety or mood disorder is to blame, counselling may also be required. 

Even more impressive is the fact that he mentions the importance of feeling one's life has meaning or having a sense of purpose.  As a counsellor I can tell you this is extremely important to well-being and I am so glad he addresses it!

If this all seems overwhelming, don't worry, Willey includes an action plan for how to put it all together and implement the reprograming of your life.

Oh, and that's not all...there's an APP for that!  Yep, if you are into devices, than you will love the YOU+ App that has customizable workouts and tutorials providing detailed instruction, as well as shopping lists and a program for tracking food intake.

So do I recommend this book/program? Absolutely.  It covers off the critical aspects of health and wellness and does it in a realistic/flexible way with evidence-based recommendations.  Good job Dr. Willey!

Disclosure: I was sent the book for free but all opinions on this blog are my own.