“Offbeat perspectives on health topics” is the understated tagline for Dr. James Hamblin’s series of videotaped medical-advice “columns” compiled for The Atlantic magazine, one of America’s most prestigious literary and cultural publications.
The video column is “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” in which writer and senior editor Hamblin, 33, explores such topics as “good” bacteria on skin (“You Probably Don’t Need to Shower”), nutrition (“Is ‘Natural’ Peanut Butter Actually Better?”), social graces (“Things Not to Say To a Pregnant Woman”) and science (“Why Every Year Seems Shorter Than the Last”). The columns are informative and interesting, but Hamblin brings hilarity to them through his deadpan delivery and out-of-the-blue remarks. Send questions to email@example.com.
Hamblin attended medical school at Indiana University and studied internal medicine at Harvard University Medical School for a year before specializing in radiology. He left to become a Yale University Poynter Fellow in journalism. In 2012 he joined The Atlantic to help expand its health coverage and launch its Health Channel. He was a finalist in the 2015 Webby Awards for “best web personality.”
Now there’s the book version of “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” presented in six themed sections (Doubleday, $27, 400 pages). In it, Hamblin addresses such questions as “Is there any harm in taking multivitamins?” and “Is life long enough?”
His answers are well-researched pieces of journalism based not only on his own expertise, but also on “hundreds of interviews with distinguished scientists and medical practitioners.” The answers are like mini-lectures, full of anecdotes, information and humor. The illustrations are out of the box, too. One of them, which appears in the “Enduring” section, is “How to Build Your Own Coffin.”
Visit him at www.jameshamblin.com.
Q: What prompted you to move from medicine to journalism?
A: I’ve always been a writer, so it was a combination of wanting to keep writing and to express myself creatively in ways I didn’t see happening with medicine. I was doing improv and stand-up comedy at night after my residency and felt split between two worlds. Everyone wants their doctor to be 100 percent focused on doctoring, and I didn’t feel I was. I took a hiatus from it and was very fortunate to get this job.
Q: Yet you’re still a physician.
A: People are always asking, “Why did you quit medicine?” For M.D.s, it’s almost like you’ve left the field if you’re not writing prescriptions or doing surgeries. I think I’m filling a gap, and I don’t see myself as having cut ties with the profession.
Q: Where did the questions in the book come from?
A: I put out a call to readers, so most of them are from real people, including friends and family. Some are syntheses of questions, and some are there to fill gaps to make the book comprehensive and allow it to flow from one topic to the next.
Q: How do you keep up with the changes on the medical and scientific fronts?
A: I’m reading and writing and talking to people about this stuff all day. If anything, my talent is to address the real concerns and points of confusion that most people have and be effective in sifting through what we know and what we don’t. Science is a constantly changing body of knowledge, but when it comes to real life, people have to make decisions and they want practical guidelines. I’m trying to maximize benefit and minimize harm, while remaining open to the findings that will come in the future.
Q: Is the popularity of your video column reflective of heightened health consciousness in general, or mass hypochondria?
A: I’m trying not to abet or create hypochondria in people. If anything, I’m hopefully serving as a counterpoint, doubling down on the things we know are good and avoiding ambiguity. I think it’s helpful, because with extended life spans come increasing numbers of people who are thinking of mortality and sickness for the first time, and they want answers.
Q: Is there one segment of the book that appealed to you most?
A: The section on dying had me particularly fascinated and where I learned the most from the research. I hadn’t thought a lot about the funeral industry, (such as) the green alternatives to the environmental toll of what’s done with bodies after death.
Q: How well do you follow your own advice?
A: I’m happier and more productive when I’m eating and sleeping well, and when I’ve exercised. Some people look at that as a sacrifice – “I don’t have time to eat smart, I don’t want to work out” – but that makes everything better.
Q: Your go-to breakfast?
A: I always do oatmeal with as many fruits and nuts as I can get into the bowl. It keeps me going if I have to skip lunch.
Q: You lived in L.A. for a year. How does the California diet compare to the East Coast, where you live now?
A: There are great opportunities for eating very well out there, it’s easier to do than almost anyplace else. You also have detox juices and semi-weird crazes. Overall the California diet is good, but there are also a lot of mixed messages coming from marketing.
Q: Please tell us it’s OK to eat pizza.
A: If you can get a whole-wheat crust and load it with vegetables, it’s a totally reasonable thing to eat. Ordinary cheese pizza is not a high-value food, but I hate to be the guy who says, “Don’t eat pizza.”
Q: Then how about, “Don’t eat pepperoni”?
A: Cured and processed meats seem pretty clearly linked to poor health, but my point in the book about meat is mainly it’s a question of the food supply and the agricultural system’s impact on the environment. To me, questions of human health are tempered by the fact that we just can’t all be eating meat all the time. The cancer risk is icing on the cake about why you shouldn’t be eating a meat-based diet.
Q: OK, doctor, how about some free advice?
A: It’s hard to make pronouncements because there are always exceptions. That said, when you eat a whole-plant-based diet, you don’t have to worry about moderation. Nobody is obese from eating too many salads. Focus on that and you won’t have to worry about a lot of other health-related issues.
If Our Bodies Could Talk
By Dr. James Hamblin
Doubleday, $27, 400 pages