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

December 29, 2007

If You’ve Made a New Year’s Resolution to Lose Weight, You May Want to Make Another Resolution to Read ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ Before You Start Your Diet

Good Calories, Bad CaloriesHave you made yet another New Year’s resolution to lose weight?  You may want to check out Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease (Knopf,  601 pp., $29.95), which I wrote about in October  www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/09/. This isn’t a diet book but one that investigates many of the claims that underlie other diet books.

Based on an exhaustive review of the scientific research, Taubes argues that obesity “experts” have demonized fat on the basis little or no evidence. Refined carbohydrates, he says, are a greater threat to health. And those fat-free brownies may hurt you more than foods that have more fat but fewer carbs. “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not,” he concludes, “is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 9, 2007

Gary Taubes’s ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

 

The latest in a series of occasional posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish themGood Calories, Bad Calories

Title: Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. By Gary Taubes. Knopf, 601 pp., $29.95.

What it is: An investigative report on the diet advice fed to us by government and other nutrition authorities. A major theme is that obesity “experts” have demonized fat on the basis little or no scientific evidence. Refined carbohydrates, Taubes argues, pose a greater threat to health. And those fat-free brownies may hurt you more than foods that have more fat but fewer carbs. Taubes sums up his conclusions in a 10-point list on page 454. Point No. 1 is: “Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization.”

How much I read: The prologue and first chapter, the epilogue, and a couple of chapters in between, nearly 100 pages.

Why I stopped reading: I liked this book and, because of it, had a salad for dinner instead of the steamed pork dumplings from the Chinese place. But it develops ideas I’d read in other books and in an article Taubes wrote for The New York Times Magazine (“What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?,” July 7, 2002). So its arguments, though strong, weren’t strikingly new to me. And Good Calories, Bad Calories is getting so much attention, it didn’t seem to need me as much as, say, books by obscure poets who live on canned ravioli because those ultra-refined carbs are all they can afford.

Best line in what I read: “Between 1987 and 1994, independent research groups from Harvard Medical School, the University of California, San Francisco, and McGill University in Montreal addressed the question of how much longer we might expect to live if no more than 30 per cent of our calories came from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat, as recommended by the various government agencies…

“The Harvard study, led by William Taylor, concluded that men with a high risk of heart disease, such as smokers with high blood pressure, might gain one extra year of life by shunning saturated fat. Healthy nonsmokers, however, might expect to gain only three days to three months …

“The UCSF study, led by Warren Browner, was initiated and funded by the Surgeon General’s Office. This study concluded that cutting fat consumption in America would delay 42,000 deaths each year, but the average life expectancy would increase by only three to four months. To be precise, a man who might otherwise die at 65 could expect to live an extra month if he avoided saturated fat for his entire adult life. If he lived to be 90, he could expect an extra four months. The McGill study, published in 1994, concluded that reducing saturated fat in the diet would result in an average life expectancy of four days to two months.”

Worst line in what I read: None by Taubes. So let’s go with a clinker written by the New York Times’s Jane Brody, who kept promoting high-fiber diets long after large-scale studies showed that they had few or no long-term benefits: “But dietary fiber … has myriads of benefits,” Brody wrote. Taubes quotes this line in a chapter on fiber that debunks much of the media hype about it.

Recommendation? This is not a diet book, but a book in the spirit of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Greg Critser’s Fat Land. Don’t miss Taubes’s brief and low-keyed – but nonetheless damning — analyses of Brody’s Personal Health column in the Times.

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

Furthermore: Taubes is a correspondent for Science magazine who, according to his dust jacket, is “the only print journalist who has won three Science in Society Journalism awards, given by the National Association of Science Writers.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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