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.