Read an Excerpt
The Big Fat Myth
IT WAS A BRILLIANT MORNING. Even by 8:15, the early Key West sun had sunk its deep, touchless massage through my skin and melted me into the wicker weave of my high-backed chair. My wife, Dottie, and I were lingering over our final breakfast at a conference on the neural control of movement (a bunch of scientists, tanning and talking about the brain and how it makes us move). Despite the delicious April sun, the meeting was over and it was time for us to head back home. With our suitcases already packed, we only had to check out and drive to the airport.
After chitchatting with colleagues over our scrambled eggs and coffee, we stood to go. A smallish French physiologist from Lyon, also at our table, got up at the same time. Fate's funny like that. Strolling with us as we left, he tossed his query out there like a hopeful horseshoe heading for the stake. "You Americans wouldn't consider doing your postdoctoral work in France, would you?"
The conversation suddenly turned into a foreign language film, with the picture above and the subtitles beneath. On the screen, Dottie and I stammered appropriate generalities, "Uh yes, very interesting. Well, certainly that's something to think about. Good-bye, we'll keep in touch by e-mail." But the subtitles read, "France!?! Holy Cow, Yes, Yes, Yes!"
We drove to the Miami airport with our heads spinning with the thought. Living in France! This decision was a no-brainer. After many e-mails and two successful grant applications, we boarded a plane with two kids, two cats, my mother, and one-way tickets to work at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences for the next 2 years.
During our wonderful stay, it quickly became clear why Americans are so often confused by French attitudes, which often seem to lurch straight out of left field. I realized, though, when my French friends acted like I was the one from another planet, that my American ways were just as bizarre to them. Being shocked by their strange views--and seeing their reaction to mine--became an exercise in self-reflection. No better example exists than diet.
The French laissez-faire attitude toward fat and weight hit home on one of our first forays. We hopped aboard the bullet train and zipped across miles of the elegant French calico countryside on our way to visit friends near Lille, in northern France. On the first morning of our visit, our friend served the children (including my 4-year-old daughter, Grace) a shredded wheat breakfast cereal with a liberal dose of whole milk over it. "Whole milk!" I mentally winced, "It's got all that fat in it. Don't they have 2 percent in this country?"
With such casual disregard for this major source of daily fat intake, you might think they'd be as large as cows. Of course they're not. Our friends and their children, like over 90 percent of the French people, are small in size and not concerned at all about the nonissue of their weight. It never comes up because they're too busy enjoying their food. It gets better. On top of the whole milk in the cereal, they add a healthy dollop of pure cream. This happens every day.
It blares with a bullhorn that our cultural training has clumsily failed us. We've had it drummed into our heads in drill sergeant fashion to watch the fats! Back off the carbs! Scrutinize the labels! But even with all this dietary indoctrination, Americans are the ones with tar-baby obesity problems, who fret and worry about each pound, who drug themselves and starve themselves and have surgeons slice out their stomachs, all to help them handle something as basic as their weight and health.
At some point, though, we've got to ask ourselves why on Earth we continue to follow the same dietary creeds that have brought us into this mess. Meanwhile, entire countries scratch their heads and wonder how our constant frenzy to control our weight could produce such abject failure.
After returning to the United States, I met our scruffy neighborhood lawn care guy, who asked me about the French license plates still on my car. I told him we had lived there and his eyes immediately glazed over into a shiny faraway mist. His thoughts percolated around the back alleys and byways of his brain, bubbling into a healthy reminiscent froth.
Then he said, "I went to France...on a ski trip...for a month." He paused for another minute, clearly slashing his way, all sunglasses and ski poles, down the virgin alpine slopes. When he came back to us, out of the clear blue he offered, "There aren't any fat people there. If you find one, they're speaking English." I laughed. Unfortunately, it's all too true.
THE PURPLE PUZZLE PIECE
My mother came to stay with us for several months in France. She helped us manage our kids and home while Dottie and I were busy being overwhelmed with work, deciphering the junk mail from the light bill, and figuring out the tortuous rules (and hand gestures) of driving among the French. Before she left the United States, my mom was struggling to cope with the horror of buying size 14 clothes--doing the psychological shuffle. "It's okay. No, really. This is...you know...just where I am. People get larger when they get older. Right? Besides, I don't need to worry about cramming my fanny into those pants anymore anyway."
With all these rationalizations safely in hand, she resolved to relax about her weight while she was with us. "I'm just going to live my life and love it. And I don't care." You go, Mom. Be defiant.
So we all ate like the French and had daily doses of high-fat cheeses on our high-carbohydrate baguettes. We indulged in creamy this and buttery that, turning a deaf ear to our guilty collective dietary unconscious. No worry, no self-denial, no counting up bits of food and saying, "Oh well, that's all I can have today."
Mom didn't even notice what happened. It was chilly during her stay, so she lived in baggy sweats much of the time. And she never saw it coming because she wasn't "dieting" or even thinking about losing weight. But by the time she returned home, my mom had gone from a size 12-begging-to-be-a-14 to a size 6, dancing around our living room floor with her arms up in the air like she had just won the lottery--in my wife's blue jeans!
If you believe, really believe, our standard American dogma of low-fat weight control (or low-carb weight control for that matter), this will sound like a dream--pure fiction. But it's not. We were shocked. She was shocked. My dad, well, let's say he was pleased with the new developments. She felt great without struggle, ate without guilt, and got thin eating sumptuous foods.
Now that I'm back home, I hear the same story over and over from people who have gone to France for any length of time. My neighbor across the street came over to pick up her daughter, who was having another sprawled-out Barbie-fest on the living room floor with Grace--little plastic hamburgers, refrigerators, and Malibu sports cars everywhere. After my neighbor found out we had lived in France, she offered her own experiences.
"I went there throwing diet to the breeze," she said with a flamboyant wave of her arm and cock of her head. "I ate whatever I wanted and loved it! And you know what? When I came home I had lost 5 pounds!" I'd heard these stories before I left for France, but how can you believe them when the constant chatter all around you warns against the dreadful dangers of this horrible kind of diet?
It's a real dilemma. What do you do when you see one thing with your own eyes (the French diet just plain works) but hear another from your own experts (the French diet just can't work)? Our first response is typical. When observations don't come out like they "should," and we really can't explain what's going on, just ignore them. That's simple enough.
Blowing off the dietary habits of fat-ambivalent countries like France is a perfect example. That's why you seldom hear reports about how few overweight people there are in France, because the French eating habits are so different from ours. They eat all that fat, all those breads; breakfast is not the most important meal of the day, and they eat their luxurious meals late at night!
Name a rule! The skinny, healthy, French people break it.
How do we respond to their nonchalant Frenchy breaking of our dietary dogmas? Well, since the simple observations don't agree with what we already believe, obviously, there must be some other explanation. It just can't be true.
Notice how many dietician scientists, who cannot begin to explain why the French are thin and we are not, don't even ask what's wrong with our current dietary strategies. We cling to the faith of our dietary creed like an Alabama Baptist at a Darwin convention. It's right. It just is. We hold on and don't question our beliefs because of one critical assumption: Our own theories must, eventually, be able to explain away all those pesky thin French people.
But it's harder and harder to justify the tottering old dogma. The average French life span is longer than ours (2 years for men, and 3 years for women) despite our sterling medical system and despite the fact that they smoke like fiends (see http://www3.who.int/whosis/menu.cfm to directly compare the health statistics of the United States and France). The most recent data from the World Health Organization show that we are an incredible three times more likely to get ischemic heart diseases than the French.
Explanations, though, are hard to come by. Maybe it's the cheese they eat after every meal, maybe it's the wine they drink with every meal. Who knows? A close friend of mine, a biochemistry professor, actually offered that it's because the bread is really chewy and requires more calories to eat! We're clearly at a loss.
One scientific paper suggested that perhaps a high "folic acid intake" explained their good heath. Another shot-in-the-dark explanation claimed that their lack of heart disease might be due to "merely the consequence of having longer, warmer, and sunnier days and easier access to fresh fruit and vegetables." The author never mentioned the sky-high heart disease rates in sunny Florida, Texas, and California, where access to warm climate and fresh fruits is unsurpassed, even in France. Here again, our incredible tendency is to make up explanations so we won't have to abandon the ship that has brought us here. And the band on the Titanic played, all the way down.
Clearly, we're stuck in our confusion--so much so that we don't even know where to point a blaming finger any more. Simple exercise has typically been the sacrificial scapegoat for our weight-related problems, but we can't fall back on that anymore. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the activity and obesity rates from 1991 to 1998. During that time, the number of U.S. states with more than a 15 percent obesity rate jumped a whopping 825 percent, from 4 to 37.
And all the while, we've been riding the low-fat train, only to watch the number of overweight Americans almost triple from 34 to 97 million between 1992 and 1999. Unbelievably, over half of the adult population in the United States is now overweight.
What do you suppose happened to activity rates over this same interval? You might guess that we're getting fatter because we're less active, sitting around on the couch like Jabba the Hut with a remote. But even coming on the heels of the "fitness explosion" of the 1970s and 1980s, this study found that many people were more active than ever. In fact, the percentage of people who were "intense" about their workouts increased from 8.7 to 13.6! But Americans got steadily fatter anyway. The bottom line is that exercise is only one part of a complex solution--one that still eludes us.
Just look at the health club data. Even since 1987, the number of health club attendees soared by 154 percent to 13.5 million in 2000. The New York Times recently reported that "regular attendance" at health clubs (greater than 100 days per year) is at an all-time high of 13.9 million sweaty souls, up an incredible 48 percent in the last 5 years.
The careful reader will perk up here. Ah hah! That's just because those zealots, those bothersome type A people who've blown the curve for the rest of us since fourth grade, work out more often! Okay, they are getting more exercise than before, but what about us mere mortals who can't get to the fitness center because we have real lives? After all, not everyone who works out does so at the gym.
True. But unfortunately, this does not help the argument that lack of exercise is the root of all our dietary dilemmas. Don't get me wrong. Exercise is critically important to your weight and health, but the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics has shown that the percentage of adults 18 years and over who engaged in regular leisure-time physical activity has remained constant over the past few years (see table below).
I speak to people all over the country who exercise as much as four to six times every week. Every week. And they still can't drop the pounds. Again, you've got to exercise. But this can't be the scapegoat for our mounting weight problems. There's far more to it than that.
What's going on? And why are we so confused about what to do? First, we're not confused because of bad scientific research. We've just been thinking about the problem all wrong.
Let's say you're working on a puzzle that's basically green. If you reach into the bag and pull out a purple piece, you'll look at it like we look at the French diet. You'll scratch your head. You might even suggest it doesn't belong in this puzzle at all. The confusion comes because you have no clue how it could possibly fit into the beautiful green picture you've created. With one purple puzzle piece in your hand and a great big green puzzle sprawled out on the dining room table in front of you, you essentially have two choices. Either throw away this wonderful green elaboration you've invested so much time and energy on, or trash those pesky purple facts that just don't fit.
Our tired dietary viewpoint (whether low-fat or low-carb) cannot credibly explain why the French diet doesn't produce a country full of heart-diseased fat people (like ours); instead, it keeps clinging to the same mantra, disregarding those disagreeable data. Maybe if we ignore the data long enough, they'll go away. But then again, maybe not.