Just last week, I finished New York Times writer Gina Kolata's new book, Rethinking Thin. Kolata's served as a science journalist for The Times for almost 30 years, and has published a handful of books, including Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It and Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Health and Exercise.
In Rethinking Thin, Kolata sets out on a similar quest for truth, this time concerning the diet industry and our societal obsession with (and relentless pursuit of) being thin. In the fashion of Paul Campos's The Diet Myth and Laura Fraser's Losing It, Kolata tackles head on the diet world, the concept of the obesity "epidemic," and the idea that dietary control may result in sustained weight-loss. A University of Pennsylvania study comparing two popular diets (low calorie vs. low carb) sets the backdrop for Kolata's historical account of how we've gained weight, lost it, and then, inexorably, gained it back.
You know the "willpower" argument--the mantra we hear almost daily that encourages us to keep trying harder to lose the weight? As Kolata writes, "Who could miss the drumbeat of messages from scientists and weight loss experts, the incessant hectoring year in and year out, assuring fat people that everything is possible for those who really, really try." Well, Kolata debunks that myth with support from the science of weight, highlighting the genetic influences associated with body type. She confronts the notion that fat people are to blame for their size, instead offering a literary montage of research studies suggesting we really don't have much control over what we weigh. It's a never-ending battle against our genes, and quite frequently, concerning our expectations, they simply just don't fit.
Kolata's account is cultural at times, referring to images of the Gibson girl, socio-political at others, documenting the negative correlation between obesity and socio-economic status, and even meticulously scientific, discussing hormones and chemicals, like neuropeptide Y and oxyntomodulin, suspected to relate to hunger and weight.
It's also sentimental--we follow the journey of four dieters in the university study, empathizing with their loftiest weight-loss hopes and dreams. Even Kolata, the objective science journalist gets drawn in by the diet allure, as she cheer leads the fateful four:
I wanted it so much that I began to suspend disbelief. I knew, I knew, the science and the overwhelmingly convincing evidence that most obese people will not be able to diet, get thin, and stay at a new low weight. But. . . I allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe these people would make it. Maybe they would fulfill their dreams.
A whole science of obesity and weight loss seems be similarly hopeful, forever searching for the weight-loss holy grail. Kolata writes:
I'd often wondered how obesity researchers can keep doing study after study, advertising for subjects. . ., starting them off again and again on a path whose outcome they must know for sure. Could it be that the researchers too fall for the dieter's delusion?
Or, as Kolata notes, and as others have documented before her, can an entire industry rest on the possibility of autonomic weight control, be invested in studies and products that propagate this myth?
And, the assumption that fat is bad is similarly endowed with individual, institutional, and corporate backing. As Kolata points out, a lot of people have a lot to lose if we're to continue to show that being fat is not consistent with the dire health consequences the media and diet industry would like us to believe. In fact, publication of opposing studies is often displaced by those (which, incidentally, are often not as statistically sound as their counterparts) that champion the idea that if you are fat, you will die. Kolata states:
I'd like to think also that as the population gets fatter, there might be a rethinking of the risks of a few extra pounds. When health data have not supported the alarmist cries of a medical disaster in the making, could society perhaps let up on the beleaguered fat people.
Could we? We're so invested in some of these beliefs, challenging them would require a vigilant shift in focus, an active rebellion against the status quo, and a voracious curiosity and search for the truth behind the scenes. Kolata writes: "If nothing else, I believe that that research by scientists who have open minds about obesity and its causes and consequences is starting to open doors." With help from Kolata's exposé, we may eventually arrive at a place where the "age-old assumption that the perfect diet will somehow emerge" is as much a scientific blunder as the thought that the world was flat or the idealistic misconception that physical exercise should be effortless.
Thankfully, Kolata gives us a running start.