One-Minute Book Reviews

January 2, 2008

Do These Genes Make Me Look Fat? Gina Kolata’s ‘Rethinking Thin’

Can you lose weight through willpower alone? Maybe not, says a science writer’s book about the myths, misconceptions and half-truths about diets

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting. By Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

You know how some people say they can eat anything and not get fat? And how others insist they gain weight if they so much look at a Caramel Pecan Brownie at Panera?

Their claims may be less far-fetched than they sound. In Rethinking Thin Gina Kolata makes clear that dieters have been misled for decades by academic and other experts who promote strategies that haven’t been proved to help people achieve long-term weight loss. Among the oversold tactics: willpower, talk therapy and removing soda and snack machines from schools.

Rethinking Thin also casts doubt on the popular behavior modification techniques, such as portion control, that drive many weight-loss clubs and programs. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere have found that dieters lose more weight and keep it off longer if they join groups that give them “tools to track and change their behavior toward food and to recognize and defuse risky eating situations.” But Kolata notes that this doesn’t mean that they do better because they are adjusting their behavior: “It could also be that better results arise from the accountability that they feel when they commit themselves to coming, time after time, to a meeting where they will be weighed and where they will talk about their eating and whether it is under control.”

If willpower doesn’t help most people stay thin, what does? Perhaps above all, having slim parents. No small value of this book lies in Kolata’s willingness to say two things diet experts rarely acknowledge: first, that people don’t get fat because of psychological problems and, second, that in the struggle to stay thin, genes matter. Rethinking Thin offers persuasive evidence that fat and thin people suffer equally from stress, anxiety and depression and that weight is to a large extent inherited. This doesn’t mean that trying to lose weight is a fool’s errand, but it does mean that some people will always have to work much harder than others to stay thin. And if you have trouble keeping a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, the fault may lie less with you than with all those Size XXL branches on your family true.

Best line: “Free will, when it comes to eating, is an illusion.” Kolata is summarizing the views of Jeffrey Friedman, an obesity researcher at Rockefeller University, and his colleague, Bruce Schneider, and much of her book supports this view.

Worst line: Kolata quotes from e-mail she received from an obesity researcher at Johns Hopkins who was responding to a question she had asked: “You are very perceptive, my friend.”

Published: May 2007 www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who lives in Princeton, NJ.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA www.nationalbook.org.

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.

 

Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”

 

Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.

 

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

 

Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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