02/26/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Did You Hear the One About the Birth, the Pig and the Logger?



Poor Nathanael Johnson. He made a huge error in his new book All Natural: A Skeptics Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, the Environment Really Keeps us Healthier and Happier.

Didn't anyone tell him that the way to sell books these days is to skim over the research, tap into the juicy bits that match your preconceived notions and then offer the reader an easy yet extreme solution? When it comes to health, we hunger for a few easy-recipes and maybe a pill on the side with promises to live longer, feel better, get skinny and smarter and happier and fitter and anything else that is controllable with the right mix of carbs and proteins and juices. And if he were really smart, shouldn't he hone in on advice that can be stated in 140 characters or less including spaces and punctuation?

Instead, Johnson -- who grew up with earthy-crunchy granola-loving, medicine-fearing parents in California -- delves into the nitty-gritty and presents a balanced assessment of everything from birth to beef. The upshot? A memoir spiced with lots of cool scientific facts -- and even a glimpse into where the science is lacking. And to make it an even better read than most health books, it's really funny too.

So, for those of you who aren't looking for a gimmick and instead crave serious reporting told in the most entertaining way, this is the book for you. You will journey along with Johnson as he delves into logging, birthing, porking (is that a verb?) and a host of other escapades as he meets with eccentric scientists on both sides of the natural versus high-tech divide.

I knew this was the book for me by the time I got to page three and he provides a description for those of us who suffer from "ecological anxiety." As he tells it:

"You know you've got it if you are occasionally concerned that hormone-mimicking chemicals are leeching from takeout containers into your food, but have found that plastic is too useful and too ubiquitous to avoid; if you're left cold by encounters with the medical system, but aren't really sure you believe in that alternative practitioner your friend recommended; if you sporadically pay more for food marked "GMO free" or "All Natural," but only if it's not too much more; if you use eco-friendly laundry detergents but still dry your clothes with an energy-guzzling machine rather than a line, and travel on airplanes and basically just live in the oil-hungry civilization you were born into, because: What are you supposed to do?"

I had so much fun reading All Natural that I found myself reading passages aloud to my husband (sometimes around midnight when he probably had better things to do than listen to pig insemination) and summarizing Johnson's findings to my kids' teenage friends (who also had probably had other things to discuss other than my current non-fiction). I even sent Johnson a fan email and asked him a few questions. Here's a bit of our cyber conversation:

Me: I don't want to give away all of the fun-facts in the book, but can you tell me what shocked you the most as you delved into birth, trees, meat and all the rest of the things that spark contentious health debates?

Nathanael Johnson: It's hard to pick just one because I was shocked in so many different ways. I was shocked by the evidence that birth is growing more dangerous rather than less so, and by the number of Americans killed by too much health care (which, according to the best number crunchers I could find, now is greater than the number who die due to lack of access to health care). I surprised myself when my research changed my mind about vaccinations. And the part of me that eternally remains an 11-year-old boy was ecstatically shocked to learn about the details of artificial insemination in the hog industry. (There was one cartoon I found in the pages of Habits of the Highly Effective Inseminator, an instructional manual, which was particularly shocking in that gleeful way.).

Me: (This isn't a spoiler, except to say that Johnson and his wife did vaccinate). Seems to me that in addition to some of the counter-intuitive findings (one section, for instance, you called "Free Range Organic Toxins) your basic message is two-fold:

1.We are all control freaks, and this take-charge desire has prompted us to reach for all sorts of quick-fixes to feel better and live longer.

2. If we could have more open and honest communication with our doctors, that , in itself, may transform these polarized debates into a helpful conversations. Would you agree? Anything you would add?

Nathanael Johnson: Yes, I think that's right. I'd just add that we often become so distracted in our grasping at fixes (quick or hard) that we do more damage than if we'd simply taken a deep breath and stepped back from the problem. So, take back pain for example: Dan Cherkin at the Group Health Research Institute recently told me that the best predictor for the resolution of back pain is... time. When you look at the data, all the surgeries, medications, and adjustments don't change what is really needed for healing, which is simply the passage of time. And in grasping after solutions people can, and often do, cause serious damage. Now this doesn't mean that people with back pain simply need to suffer without anything to help them. But that brings us the second point. Yes, I think more open and honest conversations between doctors and patients would be helpful, and I also think that they would be healthful. The conversation itself may be the most effective form of healthcare in situations like this. If the doctor can listen, and fully understand what the patient is going through, together they should be able to work out methods (mindfulness techniques, exercise, drugs) to manage the pain, and even to untangle the root causes.

Me: After reading the details of pig artificial insemination, particularly the comment from the guy who said that he sometimes needs to use his bare hands because the gloves combined with a pig penis is a really slippery affair, the first thing that crossed my mind was this, "the last thing I'm in the mood for is a B.L.T because I'd just keep visualizing pig genitals." And yet two paragraphs later, there you are munching on a pork chop. Did you have any second thoughts about that?

Nathanael Johnson: You have to understand, I was eating at a National Swine Improvement Federation conference. That's not the type of place where you can just ask for the vegetarian option without drawing attention to yourself. Absolutely that pork tasted a little different, and I find that to this day I don't feel good about eating industrial pork anymore. It's not so much the genitals as it is the barns. There's the indelible memory of the smell, and of the eyes of the pigs in their narrow stalls.

Me: And lastly, what qualities will you look for in your health providers for your daughter?

Nathanael Johnson: It's funny, I never would have suspected that I would seek out this particular quality from medical experts until I wrote this book: I look for great communicators -- and that doesn't just mean eloquence. The ability to listen closely, I think, is even more important. I want basic competency, of course, and familiarity with the latest guidelines. But beyond that I'd hope providers would be able to see how to apply those guidelines so that it works to address the uniqueness of my child and the complexity of the world around her. That requires listening, and it's much harder to find good listeners than people stuffed full of good medical knowledge.