Friday, September 04, 2009

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss – and the Myths and Realities of Dieting, by Gina Kolata


This is a weird book. I picked it up off the shelf at the library as I’m interested in learning some of the more technical aspects of dieting, from a scientific point of view. Things like calories, the efficacy of low carb diets etc. The blurb on the book made it look interesting enough – a history of diets, bracketed by the author’s close observation of a live scientific study comparing the Atkins diet against a low-calorie diet.

However, from the get-go, you could tell that the author, Gina Kolata, the science writer for The New York Times no less, was very much biased against the entire notion of dieting, or rather reducing calories, as a way to lose weight.

It’s no wonder then that, after reporting the feelings and emotions of those dieters she followed in the study, and providing a section at the end of each chapter discussing their progress and quoting at length from the subjects themselves, that Kolata didn’t even bother to provide the ultimate findings of the study!

From the way Kolata writes, it seems she felt there was no need to, as she was right all along: dieting as a way to lose weight is useless. The writing covering the dieters responses is invariably glum, with an end quote always giving a general air of hopelessness. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, this is one of the 'myths' of dieting, that it will help you to lose weight. The reality is that it won’t.

Kolata will have no truck with the idea that the reason people could be putting on so much weight in advanced Western countries is the preponderance of salty, fatty foods promoted by huge food conglomerates. Instead the answer must surely lay elsewhere, like in the obese person’s biological make-up.

Yet when you read about what the dieters are eating in the study groups, you just think: no wonder they're getting big! I mean, doughnuts for breakfast, tubs of ice-cream before bed, two Big Macs for lunch, plus fries, coke etc. One dieter is horrified at the idea of eating celery as a snack between meals.

Instead of focusing on these dense calorie foods, and the problems of a business culture that promotes them, Kolata looks to our genetic make-up. Maybe some people are wired in such a way that they are always feeling hungry and cannot stop eating. Hence we are told about scientists' discovery of certain hormones, namely leptin, that supresses the appetite. I did find all of this material interesting. It does seem to explain why some people can simply ‘forget to eat’ and not feel hungry, but others are quite often famished (I raise my hand as belonging to the latter category.)

However, it does not explain why America (and Australia for that matter), have the fattest populations. Could it be people guzzling all those unnecessary calories in soft drinks? Less and less exercise

Not for Gina Kolata. She claims that larger weights could be a sign of improved health! She quotes one study that contradicts the numbers on another study for health outcomes for the overweight. The study she prefers says that overweight people have health outcomes just as good as, or even better than, people of normal weight.

How can this be? As I’ve written before, with science you can endlessly argue back and forth the details of a study.

This book did open up my eyes to a few new different viewpoints. It seems quite reasonable to say that some people are more genetically disposed to eat more, to feel those hunger pangs more insistently. And I have read that it is possible to be overweight and still be quite healthy. Indeed, I see lots of swimmers and bike riders who are quite chubby, but keep up a mean speed.

Overall I found this book to be quite at odds with itself. Kolata says that weight is not a problem really, but still hopes that science might come up with some miracle drug that will help keep people thin. Much of the book is hostile to dieting as a ‘fad’, yet she herself longs for some new definitive scientific breakthrough.

As I said, this is a weird book. Kolata does not seem so much a science writer as some mad polemicist, hell bent on discrediting calorie controlled diets. She even gets the number of calories in a pound wrong, claiming there are 3600 when there are in fact 3500 calories per pound (check it out, on page 124.)

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