Posted by: emjb | August 19, 2007

Book Review: “Rethinking Thin”

Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times. I picked up her new book Rethinking Thin at random, while I was browsing at the library new-books shelf. And now I’m all fired up.

Without giving away too many spoilers, I’ll just mention some of the things she discusses that were surprising:

1. Almost all diets out there today–including lo-carb diets, low-fat diets, eat-slowly diets, etc. etc.–have been around since the 19th century. In fact, many people have been struggling with their obesity (people like President Hoover, the writer Henry James, and others) and with discrimination against the obese, for at least that long. In fact, there are weight-loss regimens that date back to ancient Greece (in that case, for athletes). I don’t know about you, but I’ve assumed, and been told in many articles and books, that obesity is a new thing. That it’s an epidemic. That it stems from having so much food around, which didn’t use to be the case for your average person. That before, say, the early 20th century, it was pretty much confined to very wealthy people who didn’t have to walk everywhere. That Americans are a lot more sedentary than we used to be. According to Kolata, none of that is true. Intriguing.

2. That the goalposts for who is and isn’t obese or overweight have, over the last few decades, been moved further back. You can now be considered overweight at a weight that would have been healthy 10 years ago.

3. How a highly controversial but scientifically sound study (PDF format) which was published in the Journal of American Medicine in 2005 showed that overweight, except at the extreme end of obesity, does not increase mortality. In fact, overweight may even be better for you than underweight, in terms of how long you live. The study has been attacked by many researchers–almost all of them receiving some funding from the weight-loss/diet/pharmaceutical industry organizations. Even the Wikipedia mention of this study under “Overweight” appears highly critical, although, according to Kolbata, no one has actually debunked the findings.

“Fat Will Kill You!” has been the mantra for so long for most of us that all of this is pretty startling. Those who are supposed to do research on health and nutrition have also grown up in this environment, which makes it unsurprising to me that so many of them freak out at any statistics that might show an opposite result.

But science is supposed to be about facts, not presuppositions. And when there’s so much money involved in keeping people dieting, buying pills, buying workout equipment, and buying diet books, well…you have to wonder if, just maybe, the Fat Will Kill You crowd isn’t just the tiniest bit compromised. If there isn’t more to the story.

It isn’t just a fat-acceptance thing, though, for me. I mean, I am a fan of Big Fat Blog and extremely tired of fat people being the only people it’s acceptable to hate in our society. I’m not even that big by non-Hollywood standards, so I escape a lot of overt commentary, but I hate that it’s out there. It’s not right. And I’d think that even if being fat were really just a matter of will power.

What Kolbata’s book says is that the research implies that it’s not. That powerful hormones and neural pathways have far more to do with how often and how much we eat than our psychological issues or our parents telling us to clean our plates as children.

And so if heaviness doesn’t kill us faster, and we can’t change our weight outside of a certain range…what does that mean for what we think is an “ideal” body we “should” all have? For beauty standards in general?

A good read.

Listen to an NPR interview with Kolbata here.



  1. I’ve read some other good stuff about this on the Reason blog, stating, among other things, that the CDC has some rather questionable preconceptions about the risk of premature death due in some part to obesity and about the general lack of evidence for a higher risk of premature death due solely to obesity.

    As someone who has been thin most of his life and yet had no control over it, I don’t see any real controversy in saying that most people can’t help how much they weigh. Dieting seems to make people gain weight in the long run, and a more active lifestyle seems to be required for excellent health among both the thin and the heavy.

    I do, however, take a small exception to your claim that “fat people [are] the only people it’s acceptable to hate in our society.” First, I think fat people are pitied and made fun of, not hated–not that it’s any consolation to the victims of that pity and ridicule–though I could be completely wrong out of ignorance. However I have been the object of hatred in other ways, and I can say that without a doubt that no one cries foul when someone proclaims or displays anything from mild to intense hatred of atheists. And I’m sure there are other parties out there who could claim the same.

  2. Fat people are pitied, but they are also mocked, mercilessly in a way atheists just aren’t, though. Dumb characters are usually also fat. Ugly characters, especially women, even more so. Atheists are discriminated against by simply not being represented at all, which is also bad, but since you can hide atheism and not obesity, probably not quite as exruciating to experience day to day, at least in our culture.

    And you know, I don’t care if people find fat people unattractive or whatever, that’s their perogative, I just wish that fat weren’t so often equated with stupid, helpless, sexless, uncontrolled, disgusting, etc. etc., which it is. Atheists are indeed feared and hated, but kind of like Communists are; no one really knows why they’re so scary, they just are. Sort of like Comic Book Guy vs. a mad scientists; people hate them for different reasons.

    (not to suggest atheists are communists or mad scientists. etc.)

  3. Gina Kolata is a very good science and health reporter. That being said, studies have shown that a key factor in longevity for humans is weight, and that being slightly underweight increases life spans in humans. I know, it’s the devil’s advocate position here.

    I think MORE Americans are fat than before, and what’s really scary is the incidence of morbid obesity, which is a real killer.

    I’ve been both thin and on the chunky side in my 38 years of life. Most of it had to do with diet/lifestyle. For example, since changing my diet to mostly vegetarian, it’s been easier to maintain my ideal weight.

    I don’t think any physical attribute should be made fun of, including fatness, tallness, shortness, baldness, hirsuitness, etc. However, I have a hard time feeling sorry for morbidly obese folks that don’t have any underlying medical reason for their condition. And you know what? They probably don’t want my pity, but I can promise you, they don’t want to be hated or made fun of.

  4. emjaybee, I didn’t mean to argue the degree of ill will toward people with certain characteristics, only that overweight people aren’t the last bastion of politically uncorrected hatred.

  5. So nice to hear someone consider this data. Not just repeat accepted so called “truths”. Nobody wants to be fat. Some doctors are so mean about it. Why don’t they know more about the realities of weight loss? Don’t they think everyone would be skinny if they could?

  6. Micaela, one of the things Kolata’s book argues is that the longevity studies are wrong; the ones you quote are based on a series of data that she finds quite a bit of fault with. The data she cites, convincingly to a non-scientist like me, show instead that a bit over weight is better for longevity or at least not harmful.

    But since her book’s in the library, I’d say, check it out and let her make her argument, not me!

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