Doctor-turned-journalist James Hamblin is supremely interested in how the human body works, as well as how healthcare writers can best educate the public about the issues of health and wellness. In his new book, If Our Bodies Could Talk, the Atlantic senior editor presents readers with a humorous, highly narrative, plainly written manual to the body that covers everything from why we scratch itches to how our hearts know to beat. Last weekend, ahead of his reading at Shakespeare & Co., he chatted with the Indy about everything from gluten-free brownies to fake news.
You refer to your new book as a general interest textbook. What are the challenges of writing in a format like that?
James Hamblin: I was imagining how someone could enjoy a text about anatomy and physiology. I thought about how people wonder about bodies, so I focused on style and execution and broke the book into sections like "Appearing," "Perceiving," "Eating," Relating," instead of anatomy and physiology categories like "Neurological" and "Musculoskeletal." It makes it more relatable, hopefully. I also did a lot to include narratives, real people, and reoccurring characters in an FAQ-style trivia format.
How do you simplify complex medical concepts for the average person?
JH: Actually, I think what I do is to complicate simple questions. Basically, when people ask a question about health, they assume that they are going to get a simple answer. Like, Why don't you just tell me why hair curls? But the structure of hair is complex, and I have more fun showing the complexity of an issue like that than giving an easy answer.
What is your pet peeve misunderstood medical fact?
JH: Gluten-free labeling. You see it on every restaurant menu and all kinds of food labels. It's a complex subject that I get into in the book, but the idea that gluten-free has anything to do with healthy eating, instead of celiac disease, is just false. A gluten-free brownie is not a healthier brownie. It's just gluten free. It might even be less healthy because they have to add sugar and other ingredients to make up for the texture compromise that takes place when you remove the gluten.
My other big pet peeve is the idea that we don't know anything about how to eat—that all the research is coming and going. Eggs are good one day and then bad, butter is good and then bad. That nutrition is all a matter of opinion, so I should just follow whatever celebrity diet book I find at the front of the bookstore. When you throw your hands up and think that, you fall prey to crazy beliefs and rumors. We know a lot about how to eat well. Some information has shifted slowly over the years, but it's not chaos.
What medical advice to do you follow when it comes to your own diet, exercise plan and lifestyle?
JH: Sleep hygiene is strongly tied to health and longevity. I try to sleep at the same times every night, and for seven hours. I try to wind down before bed so that I can sleep well. I also try to move a lot—that's the barest bones way to talk about physical activity that is evidence-based. I eat a whole plant-based diet. It doesn't mean absolutely zero meat or absolutely zero processed foods, but I try to eat as many fruits, veggies, greens, nuts and legumes as possible.
Finally, strong relationships are underplayed. You don't think about that as part of wellness often in the medical community, but without them, we die. You need people to hold others accountable for health goals, and you need people to drive you to the hospital when you are in need, but day-to-day relationships is what motivates people to take care of themselves. It's very rare for someone to have a long healthy life when they don't have strong, close relationships.
What's the state of health journalism today?
JH: People are becoming savvier consumers. It used to be that the very fact that something was printed in words was good enough, but now we've swung in the other direction, where a large amount of people won't believe even the most credible sources. Our reputation as a profession currently has one of the lowest credibility ratings. There's a need to reorient people and help people establish what journalism is, and that comes through being meticulous and not messing up.
We've been hearing a lot about fake news. How do you recommend that people approach health journalism in the correct way?
JH: There are general rules. Look for journalistic establishments that have a tradition of fact-based journalism as opposed to marketing information, whether from a drug company or anyone who might have a conflict of interest. The other important thing is to take single studies as just what they are: single studies. Single studies aren't meaningless, but they don't mean that our entire existence is shifting every day with each news story.
So much health journalism, because of the news cycle, is about the study of the day. If you have questions about your own ability to vet journalism, it's important to have a relationship with a primary care physician to direct you to good sources and away from bad ones. If there's a link at the bottom of the article to life-prolonging supplements or creams or potions, that's not something you want to read.
Many articles warn that readers should talk to their doctor. But it's also important for people to educate themselves about their health. How should people best look after their well-being in today's world?
JH: The democratization of health information is more good than bad. In the past, doctors were the keepers of all medical information and you had to go in and take their word for everything. But even among the best doctors, the appropriate treatment or even diagnosis is a combination of art and science and the average visit to a primary care physician is 15 minutes. Now, if you can have an active role in researching and understanding a diagnosis, that's great. At the same time, you can overdo it. The anti-vaccine crowd is a good example of that. They are reading from bad sources and getting misinformed.
Has the election changed how you cover stories or write?
JH: It's hard, because a lot of health stuff seems trivial because of the political climate. We can't all just start writing about politics. It seems there is a serious, imminent threat to large groups of our population in terms of freedom and health care. It can seem trivial to talk about things that may not have been trivial prior to the election. I am trying not to lose focus on the need for people to have a basic understanding of science.
James Hamblin will read from his new book, If Our Bodies Could Talk, at Shakespeare & Co. on Friday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. Free.