Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rethinking Thin is not a diet book, despite the title. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times, and she set out to study the science and history of dieting.

She follows a group of dieters who were recruited for a research study by three universities. The study aimed to compare the effectiveness of the Atkins diet to a low-fat diet.

Kolata intersperses chapters containing anecdotes of the dieters' experience with reports of previous dieting studies and the history of diets through the ages.

It turns out that Atkins was not the first person to come up with the notion that a high-protein, low-carb diet results in weight loss: that idea actually began with a French gourmet in the 18th century.

One chapter, titled "Epiphanies and Hucksters" discusses the dieting trends since the 1800s. Another chapter, titled "Oh, to Be as Thin as Jennifer Aniston (or Brad Pitt)" covers the extreme obsession of weight loss in the U.S. today.

Did you know that Jennifer Aniston, who is 5 feet 5 inches tall, and weighs 120 pounds, has a body mass index (BMI) of 20? Some Miss America winners have had BMIs as low as 16.9. She then discusses the more relaxed standards for men, who can be critical of women for their weights. They are actually the "fatter" sex, if that is defined by BMI. "Just 36 percent of men over 18 are at a healthy weight, and a mere .09 percent are underweight." In comparison, 49.5 percent of American women aged 18 or older have a "normal" BMI. Furthermore, Brad itt is 6 feet tall and weighs 159 pounds. If he had the same BMI as Aniston, he would weigh only 135 pounds. Revealing, isn't it?

After delving in to multiple research studies (the ones that revealed the difficulty of permanent weight loss rarely reaching the light of day because of the lobbying power of the diet industry), Kolata reaches some difficult conclusions:

-One's weight is largely determined by one's genetic makeup. If your parents or relatives are overweight, you are more likely to be.

-Although environment is important (and having healthy foods available), it's not as critical as your genes.

-It is nearly impossible for people who are extremely overweight to lose the weight permanently, without resorting to surgery.

-People who are overweight and then lose great amounts of weight usually are never sated, no matter how much they eat.

-Our notions of weight and overweight are not always grounded in science. Being overweight does not always mean you are less healthy.
Generally, each person has a destined weight range, and will generally be able to gain or lose 5 to 20 pounds, but probably will not be able to take off more than that permanently.

This could be perceived as a depressing book by people defined as obese. On the other hand, it could give some encouragement because it discusses the sheer futility people feel when trying to diet over and over again, and not reaching long-term success.

One of my dear college friends lost a huge amount of weight when she turned 40 by becoming an amazing running machine. I've never seen anything like that. And she's kept it off for about 5 years now. But she can never let up on the vigilance. That's what Kolata found.
Many of the dieters thought that once they reached their ideal weight, they'd be able to let their guards down. It doesn't work that way. According to Kolata, if you start out overweight and you are able to lose weight through dieting and exercise, it's a HUGE lifelong commitment to keep it off. And multiple studies (rarely covered in the media) have confirmed this.

Very few people are successful, making my friend's success story ever more sweet. I will never be a runner like her. But she's my inspiration!

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  1. Well, thank you for the compliments. :) What a depressing sounding book! No wonder I didn't finish it. I hope it's not quite as dire as all that. :)

  2. You're welcome Kristin! It could be viewed as depressing, but it could also be vindicating for people (like Oprah) who find it so terribly difficult to keep off their weight loss. One of the data points she cited was that people who lose massive amounts of weight go into a starvation-type of mode, akin to prisoners of war. So this proves how difficult weight loss really is...and why you should be very proud of your accomplishments.

    On the other hand, it could also cause people to give up entirely because they have no hope.