Oh, a while ago I wrote up a review of a book by Gina Kolata, a New York Times science writer. I never did anything with it, so why not, I'll post it here.
In the mid 1980’s, I worked as a research assistant at the
The book itself is the history of obesity research, coupled with glimpses of our views about weight in the last century or so. Is it complete? I really don’t know. What I do know is that as I read the book, I was inspired to reconsider certain beliefs I’d held about weight and weight control. I also, however, could think of many examples of people who defied the principals that the author puts forth as new truths.
Kolata begins with the discovery of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer, who published The Physiology of Taste in 1825. Brillat-Savarin wrote that the treatment of obesity mandates, “a more or less rigid abstinence from everything that is starchy or floury.” This was a preview of the Atkins diet, nearly 200 years ago, and perhaps the start of an endless series of diet fads. Kolata moves on to discuss the practice of “fletcherizing,” named for Horace Fletcher, also known as “The Great Masticator,” who advocated that chewing food one hundred times per minute was the key to the perfect weight and all-around good health. After years of chewing,
Almost every woman wants to be thinner, the author tells us. Miss
Kolata continues with a careful look at more recent research in the field—both human studies regarding the etiology, transmission, and treatments of obesity, and animal models in search of chromosomes and hormones that contribute to or control both appetite and body weight. She reports on twin studies, diet studies, research on those who’ve been starved and those made to gain weight.
The four patients/research subjects in the Penn study are revisited throughout in short chapters. There weight loss progress is noted, their optimism waxes and wanes as the pounds drop and come back. They are here, I believe, to make the book more palatable to the lay reader; it is otherwise a recital of research studies with a fair number of pages devoted to the search for a fat mouse gene and hormones which might, but so far don’t, hold answers to the problem of obesity. The Penn patients’ stories are dealt with rather superficially. They weren’t particularly distinctive or compelling and they blended in the author’s desire to show that sustained weight loss is a nearly hopeless goal.
Dr. Albert J. Stunkard, the Director Emeritus of the center, gets his own chapter in Rethinking Thin. He is presented as intelligent, insightful, determined, and inquisitive in his nearly 50 year- long quest to understand obesity. It’s good to know he hasn’t changed since my days as his college student.
Kolata wrote this book with what appears to be clear agenda, she has a message she wants to get out there. It goes something like this, and I’ll list it as bullet points:
· Obesity is not caused by underlying psychological problems or a lack of motivation to be thin.
· Weight is genetically determined (or at least not environmentally determined) and this is supported by adoption and twin studies. Individuals have a narrow weight range, a set point per se, and it is difficult for them to vary from this by either gaining or losing weight; it is even more difficult, if not close to impossible, for them to maintain a weight either above or below the set point range.
· There is are organizations, including diet industries, academic centers, and federal agencies which are invested in propagating the belief that it is unhealthy to be overweight and imperative that Americans eat less, eat healthful foods, and exercise more. Kolata quotes Eric Oliver, a
· People are fatter. No one knows why, and interventions aimed at changing diet and behaviors do not change weight. Kolata repeatedly mentions a $20 million, intensive 8 year study done with high-risk Native American children—the study, she says, has mostly been ignored.
· Studies that broadcast the health risks of being overweight are flawed and it seems that overweight people have decreased mortality according to more recent studies. As Americans have gotten taller and heavier, they’ve also gotten healthier with longer life spans and fewer chronic illnesses.
The Penn Study finished after two years on a low note. The dieters had long ago stopped losing weight and had regained much of what they’d lost. They were disenchanted and disappointed though perhaps transformed to a better place of acceptance.
Maybe she’s right and maybe we will.