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The Cure For Everything – Or Not?

This weekend I read “The Cure For Everything“, a book by Timothy Caulfield, professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and research director of the Health Law and Science Policy Group. (He is also a rather cool dude and someone who is quite a bit of fun to hang out with.)

In this book, which can perhaps best be described as a romp through the science and business of health, Caulfield describes his interactions with a range of experts and coaches in his pursuit of toned muscles , losing fat, and generally trying to get healthier. On the way, he debunks some of the many myths around fitness, weight loss, and personalized medicine and takes a hefty stab at so-called ‘complementary’ medicine, while not shying away from also pointing to some of the problems with the pharma establishment.

Without wanting to give away too much about, what I found to be a most light-hearted and easy read, I do wish to give a few pointers to prospective readers.

While Caulfield, as a lifelong athlete, appears rather ‘obsessed’ with his body composition, it is not exactly clear to me why he would attempt to reduce his perfectly lower-end-of normal 18% body fat down to what I would consider a most unhealthy and rather concern-evoking 10%. It appears that Caulfield, like so many, tends to equate body fat with health, something regular readers of these pages are probably well aware is rather nonsensical and counterproductive.

Rather than show some respect for what is a most useful and highly evolved tissue, Caulfield’s disdain for his poor old body fat certainly does not hark of a healthy body image or health ideal. I do know that athletes tend to easily buy into the culture of ‘fatlessness’ – but nowhere does Caulfield pause to reflect on why fat would be such an unhealthy tissue to have – a tissue only there to be searched out and destroyed.

Of course, I get that much of what Caulfield pursues is simply in the spirit of a ‘self-experiment’ – an experiment where he provides some most interesting and revealing insights into the cult-like fitness conglomerate – one that generally tends to get off far lighter than the evil food industry, although some might argue that it is as ruthless, cynical and single-minded when it comes to wealth generation for its owners as any other industry.

Much in the book, including his take on the hype surrounding personalized medicine based on genetic testing (Caulfield had his genome decoded to learn surprisingly little about himself), the magical thinking that constitutes the fundamental basis for ‘alternative’ medicines (wrongly referred to by its practitioners as a science), and the rather unfortunate practices of big pharma (who will not hesitate to buy favours with free cups of coffee and ball point pens), is not too far from what I think about these matters. Seeing them discussed with a healthy dose of humour, is most entertaining, if not radically new.

On the other hand, I am certain that many readers will likely find their beliefs challenged and probably grapple with some of the more audacious remarks including the fact that it is physiologically impossible to tone muscle, stretching is a waste of time, Yoga is essentially a marketing front for Lulu Lemon, core strength is more about wishful thinking than health, exercise is remarkably useless for losing weight, most of us need a surprisingly minute number of calories to maintain weight, and little-known truths about colon cleansing and fighting nausea with acupuncture.

Two rather minor errors did grab my attention: scopolamine is not an anti-histamine (it is an anticholinergic drug) and the ‘y’ follows the ‘r’ in my first name (a surprisingly common mistake).

Thanks Tim for an interesting read – nicely done – hope you make the bestseller lists!

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. I loved this book – thanks for the review (and the reality check on the author’s attitude towards his BF%). I thought I noticed your name spelled incorrectly!

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  2. What strikes me most about this piece is that it demonstrates the lack of collaboration among experts. Par for the course. I mean, couldn’t you have advised Professor Caulfield that your name was misspelled after he asked you to review the manuscript before it went to press? You could have pointed out the scopolamine thing at the same time. You both work at the same University and yet it doesn’t sound like you were part of Tim’s editorial team. Two of the most prominent experts in Alberta aren’t working together to bring the best health education possible to the public? When expert lawyers and expert doctors can’t model collaboration where does that leave the sheep? You are both brilliant! Tim you gotta work with Arya and Arya you gotta work with Tim. And then you gotta get the government on board. Notice went out to present private bills just last week. The sky is the limit for what you two could accomplish on behalf of the public if you would work together.

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  3. A small point, perhaps, but I actually LOL when I read the line about “big pharma” which “buy[s] favours with free cups of coffee and ball point pens…” because I recently read “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by Robert Whitaker (2010), and he cites numerous examples of academic psychiatrists (M.D.s) who rake in millions from pharmaceutical corporations for serving as “key opinion leaders” who promote specific drugs while retaining tenured positions at major medical schools and teaching hospitals. Not millions in total, but millions for individual doctors. For example $2.8 million to the chair of Emory Medical School (p. 322), $1.2 million to a former director of the NIMH (p. 323), $1.6 million to a pediatric psychiatrist as part of a “strategic collaboration” (p. 325). These are not fees for research, mind you, but rewards for promotional activities (giving speeches at conferences, for instance.) Recently passed disclosure laws in one state (Minnesota) exposed $7.4 million in payments to Minnesota psychiatrists, including a member of that state’s Medicaid formulary committee (p. 326). It does not appear that these amounts are in dispute. Thus, I would suggest that pharmaceutical corporations purchase much more than mere “favours”–and for a considerably greater price than a few dollars spent on coffee and writing implements. Also, this “collaboration” does not strike me as amusing in the least.

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  4. Now I’m curious to read the book. But I have two quibbles: Exercise and stretching may be useless for weight loss, but I’ve read that regular moderate exercise pays very large health dividends in the form of lower blood pressure, decreased risk of diabetes, and so forth. And stretching increases range of motion, which is something I aspire to and enjoy. If a person stops believing that low weight is synonymous with health, exercise and stretching can still be very worthwhile

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  5. @ Someone: you gotta read the book.

    I appreciated this review. Your comments about Caulfield’s BF% reduction echoed my concern.

    Anyway, I’ve been recommending this book to everyone who asks me how I’ve managed to lose 33 pounds over the last eight months….. (Answer: very, very slowly, with lots and lots of sweat and a personal revolution in my food consupmption).

    I wish Caulfield’s book was getting the press that “The End of Illness” (a pro-pharma “health book” that had a very high profile launch in the States) got right around the same time. I was intrigued by both, scimmed both in the book store, then got on the wait list for both at the library. Caulfields came in first (huge line for the other). After the first chapter, I knew I had to buy it, which I did. Am highlighting it and reading it to my family in hopes they’ll see the light and join me on this journey of mine rather that watch from the sidelines.

    I’ve also read more reviews about the other book, and have read more of it in the store. Seems there is a lot of legitimate criticism that what that author recommends ties in to his own business as a doctor and pharma spokesperson (ie shill).

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  6. I met Timothy at McGill University last nite. His colorful speech debunking myths about health and fitness was quite entertaining. I bought his book and plan to read it this weekend. His advocacy of healthy living ended with 5 ways to a better life i,e, don’t smoke, east 50% fruit and vegetables, exercise and get plenty of rest and last of all
    “wear helmets.” For 7 years now I have been encouraging parents to put their children and teenagers in safety helmets while in the car. My campaign “Driving Without Dying,” is spreading worldwide. What could possibly cut highway fatalities in two is not high tech but common sense. Kids nowadays are so acclamated to helmet safety that wearing head protection in the car is the next logical step. I did offer him a tidbit of advice to achieve health benefits: “Live longer, live better, play handball.”

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