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Book Review of: Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage

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Review of
Fantastic Voyage, by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, M.D.


This book contains a wealth of good information. For example, it has a good explanation of carbohydrates in Chapter 5 and a good explanation of fats in Chapter 6. Most people are totally in the dark about which carbs to eat and why. And few can tell you what makes a fat Omega 3 or Omega 6. And, it gives us hope for new advances in medical technology. Whether those things will come to pass is debatable, but they are nice to think about.

However, the book does have some weaknesses and it seems to go completely downhill after Chapter 6.

Those weaknesses emerge from a basic philosophical position that you can extend your life by taking nutritional supplements in massive quantities--and not do much else. It's interesting to note that Kurzweil takes 250 pills a day plus undergoes weekly intravenous injections, while Grossman takes 64 pills a day. Plus, both have high body fat levels and neither understands exercise. I'll explain those more in a bit. First, understand that these weaknesses do not make the book a "bad book." You just have to understand the perspective of the authors so you can make best use of the information the book provides.

This book is 20% research and 80% opinion and editorializing. Fortunately, the dividing line is clear to people with the right background. This means that, despite its weaknesses, this book can be a good addition to your bookshelf. Now, let's address those weaknesses. I'll take these in the order in which they appear in the book.

The protein recommendations on page 84 are based on your percent of caloric intake. This is the wrong basis for which to determine adequate protein intake. The amount of protein you need varies, depending on many factors. The correct way to determine your protein intake requirements is to start with 1 gram of protein per day per pound of bodyweight and adjust up or down from there to feed the muscles as needed. Why is this method correct vs. the calorie count method? Because it's based on your actual needs. This is the method athletes and bodybuilders have been using for decades. If you could get the correct results with the calorie method, that's the approach these people would take. But you can't, so it isn't.

The authors also don't understand the various types of proteins or their sources as well as they should. For example, they recommend tofu (in more than one place), but tofu is a very poor protein source. It's basically the "waste product" of processing soy protein, and its amino acid profile is horrendous. This fact is widely documented, and I'm frankly surprised they didn't know this.

I also take issue with the half dozen weekly intravenous "therapies" (page 141) Kurzweil inflicts on his body. The sheer number of puncture wounds over time isn't healthy. Mechanical damage to the body is a cancer risk. Perhaps Kurzweil is correct in taking this approach, but I remain skeptical.

Kurzweil says the "ideal" body fat percentage for men is between 12% and 20%. This is simply not true. A man with double-digit body fat is far too fat. The high numbers Kurzweil refers to are just the opinions of fat people who developed those charts from broadcloth and no real expertise. Isn't it bad enough we have folks propagating the food pyramid? We don't need fat myths propagated as well.

When my body fat rises to 7%, I get concerned (it's normally about 5.5%). Among climbers, 7% is very fat. And the same holds true for other groups, such as bodybuilders, gymnasts, and models. In the upper single digits, the abs disappear, and love handles start to form. I feel best when my body fat is at 5.5%. I look best at about 5%.

Kurzweil has "determined" that his optimum body fat level is 14% (page 142). He gives no basis for this, but I suspect the reason is that he simply can't go any lower because of all the supplements (many of which have some kind of sugar coating or other calorie source) combined with his poor exercise regimen so he calls it "optimal."

Grossman does even worse, at 17.9%. First of all, your body fat level varies through the day--stating yours to one tenth of one percent is facetious. Second, he would still be way too fat if he lost half the body fat he has now.

I hate to use the word delusion here regarding how these men view body fat, but I can't think of a better word. It's not something they've figured out, so they accept it. In doing so, they undermine all the smart  things they are doing by being dumb in this regard.

Kurzweil says the mainstay of his exercise program is walking. This is a major hole in his "live long enough to live forever" plan. He says he also uses his weight machine three or four days a week. Weight machines isolate muscles, and therefore create muscular imbalances and ligament issues. They do not train you for any real motions, and they retard your ability to improve balance and coordination--two skills that reduce your likelihood of a dangerous fall. Further, extended training with weight machines results in underdevelopment of the stabilizer muscles. This is exactly why you see gym rats with torn rotator cuffs.

But Kurzweil really tells us what we need to know when he says, "I often watch movies and concerts while exercising." This means he does not pay attention to his exercising, does not focus while exercising, and does not push himself to get enough intensity for the exercise to do much good. Exercise, when done properly, changes the chemical and hormonal environment of the body--producing many of the same changes Kurzweil seeks through pills.

For example, blood tests show a significant rise in testosterone levels after performance of any of the traditional compound weight exercises. These include squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. This testosterone increase lasts for 24 hours or more, before tapering back off. Testosterone is the hormone that tells the body to store calcium in the bones, burn fat, and store glycogen in the muscle cells. These kinds of exercises help forestall osteoporosis. One of the reasons for studying this is the space program. Astronauts lose bone calcium while weightless. So, researchers looked into why. And if you didn't know before, you do now.

The basic problem Kurzweil and Grossman have is they want to do pills rather than real work. Beyond Chapters 5 and 6, this book is strong on the pills side--thanks to the authors' bias in that direction. So if you understand the other elements, this book can be helpful.

But even there, we must take a grain of salt along with the supplements. Earlier, I mentioned the disparity in 250 vs. 64. What's the logic, there?

And what about cQ10? In the bodybuilding world, this supplement has been roundly debunked as doing nothing for you. I don't know the story on cQ10, and Kurzweil fails to provide it. But, he does recommend taking plenty of it. He should either delete cQ10 from the next revision, or provide some scientific evidence of its efficacy. A progressive (vs. regressive) double-blind study would be the minimum, here, because of the literature opposing his recommendation.

Another area, and this is critical, is Kurzweil recommends taking vitamin A (pages 324 and 334). Has he never heard of vitamin A toxicity? Never take supplemental vitamin A, unless you are doing so under the direction supervision of a physician who has nutritional credentials. You can take carotene, a vitamin A precursor, but never take vitamin A. If you have vitamin A in a multivitamin, it should be near the 5,000 IU that comprise the 100% RDA--not the 2,660 IU that he recommends for women and certainly not the 3,330 IU he recommends for men.

On page 339, Kurzweil says, "The mainstay of your exercise program should be aerobic exercise." This is not true. In fact, aerobic exercise does little to burn body fat, does nothing to boost testosterone, and does nothing in a lot of areas. This statement shows complete ignorance of exercise science. Read "Body of Work" or "The Absolution" for more information. Many other authoritative books abound to counter Kurzweil's statement. The rest of what follows after that statement is also mostly wrong. He completely ignores interval training, which is the most effective way to build cardiovascular capacity and burn fat. And he fails to discuss a huge downside of aerobic overtraining: cortisol. Kurzweil does discuss cortisol elsewhere in the book, and what he says should warn you off of becoming a treadmill junkie. Given his high body fat and reliance on aerobics, he probably has excess cortisol levels himself.

On page 343, he recommends stretching before exercising. Wrong again. You should never stretch before exercising. We have reams of data showing this increases the likelihood of injury. Think about it. Stretching weakens a muscle around its limits of range of motion. It's at these limits where you most risk injury.

We can see from page 342 that Kurzweil doesn't understand plastics, either. There are beverage containers that don't leach chemicals into water. These are hard plastic or acrylic. These are the kinds of containers athletes use. Also, Kurzweil fails to mention a very common plastics problem: the "burn-in" time required for computer monitors. You can greatly limit your exposure to toxins by running a monitor in a ventilated, unoccupied area for 48 hours before using it in your office. It takes about 6 months for the fumes to be completely gone, but that 48 hour burn-in takes care of most of them. You know that "new" smell? That's toxic. I'm surprised he didn't mention this.

On page 366, Kurzweil again gets it wrong in aerobic vs. weights. And he apparently is unaware of the much higher endorphin levels obtained with weight training vs. aerobic training because he's busy watching movies and concerts during "exercise" rather than seriously exercising.

This book contains much good information. But, it also contains many inaccuracies and some false statements. Where the book primarily falls flat on its face is the same place the authors primarily fall flat in their fitness programs--exercise. In addition, it contains dangerous advice on vitamin A. Chapters 5 and 6 make this book a good purchase, but it is probably best to razor out the rest of the chapters.


About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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