So you think you know what’s good For You
Dr Norman Swan
Hachette 418pp $32.99

With an apple (why a Granny Smith?) pictured on the cover, rather than a stethoscope or an ECG graph? This is clearly a book about preventive health rather than accessing medical care to rectify one’s lifestyle mistakes or misfortunes. Alas, as ‘Australia’s most trusted doctor’ (the cover blurb’s words) explains, we need to do a lot more than eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away.

Although the tone of the title suggests that the reader, presumably already concerned about their lifestyle, might be off-track, this ‘ultimate health guide’ (the cover again) does not have a moralistic tone, with Australia’s currently-best-known medico – this is true - delivering a grab-bag of good advice whilst busily hosting the ABC’s Coronacast and being Dr Everywhere on the national media. 

Clearly the author loves keeping active, and as he explains, loving what you do is one of the keys to keeping well.

There are some important messages in all this COVID-19 stuff, Dr Swan tells us, one being not to be “beguiled by modern medicine or politicians who distract us with dramatic announcements,” another being to eat more veggies and less animals from the jungle. The Wuhan lab controversy is touched upon, but not adjudicated – will it ever be?

The greater part of the work, which has the feeling of an old-style family health bible, addresses matters less exotic than pandemics. For instance, how much and what kinds of fuel we put into our bodies, how efficiently we move ourselves in the ways nature intended, how we sleep and have sex, and how we care for our children.

“The point of this book,” Dr Swan writes, “is to take a 360-degree look at your health, rather than fixate on the minutiae. There’s little in the scientific literature which suggests that injecting food with additives makes any difference to our overall wellbeing.”

The exceptions, as he notes, include fortifying wheat flour with thiamine and vitamin D, and folate, for well-proven reasons.

A good deal of the book falls unavoidably into the bleeding obvious: all smoking is harmful, salt is damaging (if delicious), poor sleep is a health risk, workplace or personal stress is damaging, and so on. If only we’d take proper notice. 

However, the broader advice, divided into bite-size sections, goes to the less-understood core of our modern lifestyle, ranging from cholesterol and BMI measurements through the proven benefits of coffee and tea (thank heavens), to psychological therapy and yoga, and the perils of too much screen time – “a heading that you wouldn’t have read in a health book a generation ago”.

Dr Swan’s ‘quick take’ on sexuality – “Negotiation around mutual pleasure can make sex better and safer” – is indisputable and tempting to leave as a summary of this section of the book. Yet it by no means represents his overview of the contemporary practices of Australian men, women and non-binary people when it comes to loving. Topics explored include Instagram sex, porn, condoms, STIs, monogamy, cis and trans – “I’m clearly not qualified to write this section’ – along with men’s hunt for the clitoris, female libido in mid-life, alcohol misuse by LBQ women, and much in between.

With fifty pages of endnotes there’s plenty to keep the dedicated reader engaged, with a quicker take offered by the “two fundamental concepts that sit behind this book”, the first being that “there is no such thing as a split between the mind and the body.” 

The other is that ‘control’ is the most important thing in life. This is not about being a control freak, as Dr Swan says, but about “being able to control your destiny; making decisions which give you independence and an ability to chart your own course, whether that be in your personal life, with kids if or when you have them, and at work.”

What’s Good For You is also about knowledge, which is “information plus analysis… While the book is based on science, I’ll tell you when the evidence is wobbly and what’s known about the risks versus benefits of decisions you might make.”

You can’t be more honest than that, and if only for this approach Dr Swan’s how-to tome is a valuable addition to the kitchen tables, backyards and bedrooms of every Australian family.