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

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

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2006

The New Year’s Resolutions of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

Allison Pearson satirizes sexual double standards at work and at home

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Anchor, 338 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Working mothers! Can you identify with any of the following New Year’s resolutions?

“Adjust work-life balance for happier, healthier existence … Spend more time with your children … Don’t take [husband] for granted … Attempt to be size 10 … Call friends, hope they remember you.”

These are the resolutions of Kate Reddy, the high-octane fund manager and heroine of Allison Pearson’s merciless send-up of sexual double standards, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Kate believes she was “educated for something better than the gentle warming of Barbie pasta.” But her firm’s diversity initiatives are sham, her young children “have not grasped the principle of Quality Time,” and when her nanny calls in sick, the only available temp is a “close relative of Slobodan Milosevic.” Kate’s husband means well, but his good intentions are destined to count for only so much “until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper.”

One of the great virtues of this novel is that Pearson understands – and lampoons – the cultural forces that hold women back, such as diversity programs designed to more protect firms from lawsuits than to end discrimination. She never suggests that Kate would have fewer problems if she had a different husband or children or had spent years in therapy. But she hedges her bets with an over-the-top subplot about Kate’s father that that shows that not only does her heroine work with cretins – her father was pretty awful, too. Pearson tries to connect the two ideas by suggesting that women who succeed in finance tend to be “Daddy’s girls.” This may be true, but she tells us this instead of showing it convincingly, and at times causes the novel to cross the line from satire into farce. And when the inevitable marital crisis erupts, Kate’s husband takes action too cruel for a man who cast as saintly until them.

Even so, nearly every page of the novel has a sparkling or trenchant observation that helps to make it the best send-up of sexism at work of the new millennium. Every reader may have his or her own favorite line. Here’s one that fits a holiday week: “Like any other family, the Shattocks have their Christmas traditions. One tradition is that I buy all the presents for my side of the family and I buy all the presidents for our children and our two godchildren and I buy Richard’s presents and presents for Richard’s parents and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Cheryl and their three kinds and Richard’s Uncle Alf … If Richard remembers, and depending on late opening hours, he buys a present for me.”

Best line: Here’s one that involves Kate Reddy’s 18-month-old son: “Ben has discovered his penis. Lying on the changing table, he wears the rapt, triumphant expression of a being who has just found the on-off switch for the solar system.”

Worst line: “My dad has always confused sentimentality with intimacy.” This is telling, not showing. And that “intimacy” is one of Pearson’s rare descents into psychobabble.

Recommended if … you have incipient carpal tunnel syndrome from all the packages you wrapped while your husband was watching The Game.

Editors: Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, Alison Samuel at Chatto, and Caroline Michel at Vintage.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover edition). September 2003 (first Anchor Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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