Book Review: All Natural* by Nathanael Johnson

Turns out I was reading something old and something new from the very same press last week. Guess who?

When I heard about the new book “All Natural” by Nathanael Johnson, I was immediately intrigued.  There are not many writers who delve openly and honestly into questions about whether “natural” approaches to eating, childbirth, and medicine are actually healthier. Most people come at these topics with pretty strong leanings or an all-out agenda already in place. So those of us who want to figure it out for ourselves are usually left reading two wildly opposing opinions and trying to sort it out on our own. Nathanael Johnson offers a rare helping hand that might save some of us from late night Google searches about what to put in our children’s lunchbox or how to approach our next medical question. He delves into all of these questions and takes readers along as he speaks to scientists, offers historic perspective and generally travels around with an open mind and a sense of humor.

The research is thorough and as is the full rambling title,“All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier.” What makes the writer’s perspective so unique is that he was raised by extremely natural orientated hippies and he is able to look back honestly at what worked and did not work for him without mocking or attacking his parents approach. He is not the conservative child of hippies rejecting how he was raised, but he looks critically at each piece before he decides how he wants to raise his own family. He is honestly trying to decide which pieces he wants to carry forward based on the best available science, not values and emotions. As a bonus, his personal story compelling and very funny and he keeps the reader laughing while we approaching topics that usually make people tense and angry instead.

When I read this interview in Mother Jones, I expected to relate to the writer’s perspective as a new parent struggling to make the best possible choices between nature and technology. It turned out I enjoyed the writing even more than I expected and I was surprised to find myself learning so much about topics I have already spent a chunk of my life thinking about like nutrition, farming and natural childbirth. I am fascinated by honest discussions about why so many of us are drawn to “natural” lifestyles. I am especially intrigued when the conversation includes discussions of real pros and cons rather than being rooted in one particular ideology. I can relate to his quest since I also spend a lot of time trying to make the right choices, which can sometimes leave me Googling late into the night. In the end, I often find myself splitting the difference.

For example, I chose natural childbirth in a very conventional hospital setting with all the precautions in place.  As far as nutrition, the food in our house is mostly organic and plant based but I will allow my children to eat artificially colored birthday cake outside the home (in fact they may be doing that right now as I write). It can be lonely and uncomfortable and sometimes I worry that I am not firm enough, but I seem to remain in the gray area much of the time. Other times I remain firm but see the irony of my choice.  Once I got on the beltway to return my “not natural enough” mattress and realized in traffic that I did not tie it down that well. So, I know, we need to keep all of this in perspective with the rest of the safety questions in life like driving with a poorly tied down mattress is (duh) super dangerous.  But it can be tricky and we all lose perspective sometimes so it is great to have books like this to help lead the way.

We need more writers like Nathanael Johnson exploring the gray areas beyond what we think we know, what we believe in and what we want to be true.  He wades deep into polarized debates and listens to many sides of conversations on natural childbirth, nutrition, raw milk and alternative medicine.  He travels the country, talks to all kinds of experts and visits fascinating places including farms, hospitals and natural birth centers.  Each chapter contains exhaustive research and historical perspective.  His stories about his own childhood keep the book rooted, funny and personal.

In the end, the book put me in a better position to make the hard choices I need to make as a mother, as a farmer and as a consumer of food and medical care. And while it can be uncomfortable and lonely to hang out in the gray area, it is probably where I want to remain, and it is good to know I am not alone! By the way, Nathanael Johnson is on a speaking tour right now, maybe you will be able to catch one of his events his schedule is here.

(My disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher, thanks Rodale! My copy is now available to loan to local friends.)


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. I am going to check it out as I often find myself in the place you described as “splitting the difference”. My most recent dilemma; sun screen vs. vitamin d deficient.

    • I’m right there with you Tammy! I want to do the research into this for real at some point, but I find the AAP’s position that sunshine should always be avoided if possible hard to swallow. That’s because I tend to lean natural (my wife is the opposite – she wants to protect our daughter from the sun – I want to protect her from the sunscreen!)

  2. Tanya – I just wanted to say thank you for the terrific review! It’s not often that I read something like this. Not many people want open minded honesty – it’s so much more fun to have something that just affirms what you already believe. It sounds like we are cut from the same cloth more or less, so I hope you keep in touch.

  3. Pingback: A couple lovely reviews | Nathanael Johnson

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