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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 Dieting

4.8 4
by Gina Kolata

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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

In this eye-opening report, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata shows that our society's obsession with dieting is less about keeping trim and staying healthy than about money, power, trends, and impossible ideals. Kolata's account of four determined dieters in a study


A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

In this eye-opening report, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata shows that our society's obsession with dieting is less about keeping trim and staying healthy than about money, power, trends, and impossible ideals. Kolata's account of four determined dieters in a study comparing the Atkins diet to a low-calorie one becomes a broad tale of science and society, of social mores and social sanctions, and of the place of diets in American society. Brimming with anecdote, scientific data, and common sense, Rethinking Thin offers a challenge to the conventional wisdom about diets and weight loss.

Editorial Reviews

Rethinking Thin isn't a diet book; it's a meta-diet book. New York Times science writer Gina Kolata doesn't offer any weight loss plan; instead, she traces our obsession with obesity back to its social and historical roots. With reportorial flair, she demonstrates that changing ideas about dieting and weight loss have been shaped by misconceptions and unrealistic ideals. After following a quartet of desperate dieters as they frantically struggle to melt away the pounds, she offers a devastating critique of the multibillion-dollar diet industry. This is top-flight investigative journalism.
Publishers Weekly

New York Times reporter Kolata may be the best writer around covering the science of health. Here she offers an eye-opening book that questions all our received wisdom about why we get fat and the health hazards of those extra pounds. In chapters equally entertaining and dismaying, Kolata (Flu) traces the history of dieting fads back to the 19th century; discusses our changing ideas about the ideal body (thinner and thinner); and, most importantly, explains how genetic and biochemical understanding has (at least among researchers) replaced the view of obesity as a lack of self-control. Most dramatic is Kolata's recounting of Jeff Friedman's groundbreaking search at Rockefeller University for the "satiety factor," a hormone he called leptin that tells our brains when we're full. The science alternates with moving chapters in which Kolata follows a group of people in a weight-loss study who are trying desperately to get thin—a quest that, as Kolata makes increasingly clear is sadly futile. In her final—and perhaps most surprising—chapter, Kolata blasts those in the obesity industry—such as Jenny Craig and academic obesity research centers—who are invested in promoting the idea that overweight is unhealthy and diet and exercise are effective despite a raft of evidence to the contrary. This book will change your thinking about weight, whether you struggle with it or not. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Much has been written about obesity and its threat to public health. Kolata uses a study at the University of Pennsylvania, comparing the traditional low-fat diet to the Atkins diet, as a prism through which to examine the history and science of dieting. While diet and exercise are touted as the solution to obesity, studies show they aren't always effective. For example, heavy people who diet down to an "ideal" weight do not have the metabolism of those who easily maintain that weight. Instead, they have the metabolism of a starving person. How can anyone spend the rest of their lives in perpetual deprivation? In search of an easy, effortless solution, we turn to science. However, the actual causes of obesity are complicated, involving brain chemistry and development, and may in fact simply be part of becoming a better-nourished human race. Kolata has the ability to explain the science involved clearly and simply. She makes a powerful case for a dispassionate examination of the facts, divorced from the diet industry's promises and hype.-Susan Salpini, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher
"Kolata may be the best writer around covering the science of health….This book will change your thinking about weight, whether you struggle with it or not." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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First Edition, First Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


The New Science of Weight Loss-and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Gina Kolata
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-10398-9

Chapter One

Looking for Diets in A the Wrong Places

If you met Carmen J. Pirollo, you might not realize that he has a weight problem. He's a square-jawed, animated man, who talks in exclamation points, favors preppy clothes, and-the big hint that he's a bit self-conscious-sometimes doesn't tuck in his shirts. Yet while you may notice his abdomen under that shirt, he is not what you might think of as obese. He does not seem to have any trouble moving, and when he sits down, he does not spill out of his chair. He's not like one of the subjects in those insulting, deliberately humiliating photos that show up in magazine articles or on television programs to illustrate the horrors of the obesity epidemic-those familiar images of round-faced, double-chinned people captured stuffing hamburgers into their mouths or of a fat family lumbering past fast food restaurants, dipping into bags of popcorn or licking ice cream cones.

But Carmen, according to the official standards, is fat-obese, in fact-and he knows it. He's 5 feet 11 inches tall, and at 265 pounds, his body mass index, a measure of body fat based on height and weight, is 37. That is a level at which public health guidelines warn that dire health risksstart to mount.

And dieting has become a part of Carmen's life. Over the years, he has tried almost every variation on the dieting theme, losing weight over and over again, only to gain it all back, and more. "I've lost a whole person over my lifetime," he says. In his thirty-two years of professional life as an elementary school teacher at a New Jersey school not far from his townhouse in Philadelphia, he has seen his weight climb and climb and climb despite all his efforts to control it.

But on a chilly evening on the first day of March in 2004, Carmen, at age fifty-five, opened a new chapter in his weight loss history. He began a two-year stint as a volunteer in the extraordinary experiment that was prompted by the small pilot study a few years earlier comparing the Atkins diet with a standard low-calorie one.

The three investigators who did the first study got federal funding to expand it to include 360 obese subjects at their medical centers-the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado, and Washington University in St. Louis-and continue it long enough to get some answers that would hold up to scientific scrutiny. They'll follow each subject for two years, with regular measurements of weight, blood pressure, kidney function, and stamina. They'll periodically question their subjects about satisfaction with the assigned diet, and they'll evaluate the dieters for changes in mood.

The two diet plans could not be more different. The low-calorie diet program is one that few dieters have heard of but that is beloved by academic researchers. It was developed by a member of the club, a university professor, not some self-promoting diet doctor, but a researcher, a psychologist whose goal was to give the best advice for weight loss, whether or not it was what fat people wanted to hear. And it comes with a hefty manual that tells you how to succeed, culling the accumulated wisdom of academic researchers. The diet's name is as earnest as its advice. LEARN, it's called, which is an acronym for "Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitudes, Relationships, Nutrition." And it was the diet with which Atkins would be compared.

Of course, no one signing up for the new study wanted the low-calorie LEARN diet. They were attracted by the idea of a two-year intensive program to help them lose weight and keep it off. They knew their diet, Atkins or low-calorie, would be decided at random. But they were hoping they would get Atkins, the diet that all America at that time, it seemed, was adopting. The Atkins diet was developed by a man so confident in his program that he called it "the new diet revolution."

The Atkins diet plan says that carbohydrates make you fat, so you must strictly limit them. But you can eat your fill of other foods. You will be counting grams of carbohydrates, but how hard is that when you can fill up on foods like steak and eggs? Also, Atkins promises, you won't be hungry. No more going to bed at night feeling famished, hardly able to wait for the next morning when you can eat again. No more obsessing over the next meal, feeling a gnawing hunger even as you finish your meager allotted portions of the meal you are eating. His diet, Atkins stressed, was nothing like those food-deprivation diets that almost everyone who struggles with their weight has tried and tried again. His diet really was a program you can happily follow for the rest of your life. "With Atkins, you'll get the results you've dreamed of without the agony of deprivation," he insists.

LEARN's message is that if you want to lose weight, you have to face up to a punishing reality-you probably will never be eating your fill, and you will always be keeping track of what you are eating and how much. You will always feel that edge of hunger. But the program will teach you how to manage. You will learn to monitor your food, and to stop eating before you are sated. You will learn tricks, like putting your fork down between bites of food, that will slow you down and help you eat less. You will learn to recognize portion sizes: what a 4-ounce piece of steak looks like, or a medium apple, or a 1-ounce slice of bread. And that training will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life as you try to keep your eating under control. "Let's face it-losing weight is hard work and maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging," the LEARN manual bluntly says.

Atkins says that carbohydrates are diet traps, making you put on weight despite yourself. If you greatly reduce the amount of carbohydrates you eat, he promises, your body's metabolism will change so you start burning your own fat for energy and you lose weight.

LEARN says that the source of your calories is not the issue-it is how many you are eating that matters. Consuming too many calories is what makes you fat, and if you want to lose weight, you have to count them rigorously every day. There are no forbidden foods, but your goal is to eat healthfully, so you are to choose foods consistent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid while keeping careful track of your calories. That means keeping a food diary, weighing and measuring what you eat, and choosing foods that are low in fat. It means a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, and cereals.

The advice embodied in LEARN is pretty much what has been urged upon Americans for decades, yet it is advice that few have followed. Strive for 5 say the cheery signs in Wegmans food markets, a chain of supermarkets in the Northeast, exhorting customers to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. But if you just turn your head, you will see the warm loaves of bread piled behind the bakery counter, the cheese breads and oil-coated focaccias next to the long loaves of French bread, which, as almost every dieter knows, are made without fat. And scattered about the aisle of apples-thin-skinned red McIntoshes, next to speckled Cameos, next to shiny green Granny Smiths, next to a pile of ovoid Pink Ladies-are little plastic pots of caramel dip. Life is hard for the resolute.

But the LEARN program was never supposed to be the academics' answer to fad diets that promise miracles. It began about as modestly as a diet can, as part of a Ph.D. dissertation by a young psychology student at Rutgers, New Jersey's state university. The year was 1976, and the student, Kelly Brownell, was testing the hypothesis that dieters would be more likely to succeed if their spouses got involved with their weight loss program. The idea was to help spouses be enablers, and not dissuaders, by teaching them to keep temptations out of the house, to prepare low-calorie foods, and to help the dieters eat three measured meals a day with only preplanned snacks in between.

So Brownell wrote a diet-and-behavior-modification program for all the dieters in his study to follow and a companion program for spouses. His plan was to recruit overweight people and, in keeping with the rigors of scientific research, assign them to different programs. One group would get the diet program and behavior modification program along with a companion program for their spouses. Another group would get the diet program and behavior modification, but their supportive spouses would have no special instructions or training. There also would be a third group of dieters, people who wanted to lose weight but whose spouses said they were completely uninterested in helping in any way. Those subjects would get the same diet and behavior modification as the others, but in all likelihood, they would get no additional help or support at home.

The program manual was all-important to the study because it was the key to making sure that everyone got the same weight loss advice, no matter who administered it. The three groups of subjects would meet with different facilitators, so Brownell had to be certain that they were told exactly the same things about diet and behavior modification.

"We basically wrote a protocol on how to deliver treatment for obesity," Brownell says.

The study got under way. Brownell recruited ten obese men and nineteen obese women, with an average age of forty-five and an average weight of 208 pounds. The weight loss treatment phase of the study lasted ten weeks, with weekly ninety-minute sessions on diet and behavior modification. That was followed by six months of a maintenance program, with monthly meetings.

As Brownell expected, people did best when their spouses were actively involved-that group lost, on average, 20 pounds in the first ten weeks and another 10 in the six months that followed, losing twice as much as the group whose spouses were not cooperative or those whose spouses were involved but were not taught how to help.

Brownell's dissertation went smoothly-he handed in his neatly typed Ph.D. thesis, he sailed through the requisite grilling by faculty members, and his study was published in 1978 in Behaviour Research and Therapy. He ended up with a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued his research on how to lose weight and maintain weight loss. But, to his surprise, the manual that he wrote for his dissertation was becoming a hit at academic medical centers.

"One of the most interesting outcomes was that people wanted this book on how to do behavioral therapy. We started to copy it and send it out, but we were breaking our bank just sending it out. We started asking people to pay for photocopying, and then we started revising it, making it longer because we were learning more. Soon we started to ask, Should this get published?"

But publishing the manual as a book was problematic, Brownell realized. What was the point-to have his book become part of the vast ocean of diet books that appear each year and then vanish, out of print? To have his book, if he was lucky, appear on a table of new books in bookstores, then move to the store's shelves, first displayed face out, then with just its spine showing, and then piled in a remainder bin? And were eager dieters really going to grab a book about a program called LEARN, a program that says that weight loss should be slow and steady and that maybe you will never get to the weight you think is your goal, but losing even a few pounds is good for your health?

"Diet books have a short half-life. You have to have a gimmick, and you have to do what Atkins did, find a diet that makes people lose weight really fast," Brownell says. (He says the Atkins gimmick is to place such stringent restrictions on what people can eat that they end up eating many fewer calories simply because so many of their favorite foods are off-limits.)

Yet academic researchers wanted the LEARN program, and Brownell wanted to provide it. He decided to form his own publishing company, American Health Publishing Company. By publishing the manual himself, he could keep his book in print, revise it every year, and make it, he says, "user friendly."

"We put all the expertise in there, but in an engaging, optimistic, even humorous format," Brownell says. There are cartoons-Cathy and Garfield are particular favorites. And scattered little boxes of text give helpful hints with headlines like "Did You Know?" ("Did You Know? Underestimating your daily caloric intake by as little as 100 calories a day can add more than 10 pounds of body weight each year.") It looks like a high school textbook, not a typical diet book, and there are no inspiring tales of dramatic weight loss or lives transformed by the diet. The chapters end with little quizzes, and dieters are given homework, like a form at the end of Chapter 2 in which to write down what they ate; what time they ate it; their "feelings"; their activity, if any, while eating; and the calorie count of each meal. They get a list of the calorie content of foods, and they get advice on sticking to the diet that is not particularly revolutionary but, Brownell says, has proven to be useful-keep tempting foods out of the house, shop when you are not hungry, keep records of what you are eating, get regular exercise.

Brownell also took pains to be strictly ethical about his program. As founder of the company, he explains, "evaluations by me would be a conflict of interest." But other academic groups evaluated the program, with results, Brownell said, that varied from place to place and context to context.

"Sometimes it was the main treatment. Sometimes it was used in the control group. Sometimes it was used with medications. Sometimes you get very skilled people using it, and sometimes you don't." So it remained on the scene, familiar to obesity researchers, unknown to most of the public, rarely criticized, generally accepted, and with an air of wholesome, earnest healthfulness. It was, of course, nothing like the story of the Atkins diet.

More than a decade before Brownell wrote his program, a New York cardiologist, Robert C. Atkins, was trying to lose weight. He read about a low-carbohydrate diet in the Journal of the American Medical Association and tried it on himself in 1963. It worked, he said-pounds just evaporated. So he decided to remake himself as an obesity doctor. He turned his medical practice into an obesity clinic, putting his own patients on the diet. Then he wrote a book promoting it. Published in 1972, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution told people they could eat all the fatty foods they wanted as long as they kept a tight rein on their carbohydrates. By keeping their carbohydrate levels down, Atkins said, people would keep their insulin levels down and would keep hunger at bay. The book was an immediate bestseller, and immediately raised the ire of academic medical experts, who said the diet was crazy and dangerous and that its high fat content would lead to high cholesterol levels, which in turn would cause heart attacks and strokes.

In 1973, the American Medical Association's Council on Foods and Nutrition published a blistering critique of the diet, calling it a "bizarre regimen," saying Atkins's ideas were "for the most part without scientific merit," and adding that while Atkins claimed that the diet would activate a fat-mobilizing hormone, removing fat from storage, no one had ever found such a hormone in human beings.

In April 1973, Atkins was called to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He appeared with his lawyer and said he stood by everything in his book, including his advice that pregnant women could safely go on the diet. Leading obesity and nutrition experts were appalled, testifying that Atkins's diet was dangerous and that they were aghast at the idea of telling pregnant women to follow it. "If I were a fetus, I would forbid my mother to go on such a diet," Karlis Adamsons, an obstetrician at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, told the Senate committee.


Excerpted from RETHINKING THIN by GINA KOLATA Copyright © 2007 by Gina Kolata. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times and the author of the national bestseller Flu.

Ellen Archer is an acclaimed audiobook narrator and winner of the coveted Audie Award for For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD.

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Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss---And the Myths and Realities of Dieting 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Lipidking More than 1 year ago
Personal experience. I was 280 pounds. I had exercised daily for two years and continued to gain weight as I started taking insulin. I lost 80 pounds with the 3 hour diet by Jorge Cruise. I have since gained back 50 pounds despite increasing my exercise to more than 2 hours a day. I have faithfully continued to eat every three hours and feel I have much more control over my eating than i ever did. Why did I gain weight. At 200 pounds I was cold all the time. I am 5 feet 11 inches. I am supposed to be 170 pounds. My waist was 40 inches. I could not lose more weight despite exercise and continued diet. I was in a semi-starvation state. I am still off insulin and I documented the details of this history in my book, The Tubby Theory from Topeka. Despite gaining back weight i continue to have a Hgb a1c <7.0 and my LDL-P is < 800 and my CIMT atheroma has not progressed. NCEP guidelines advising weight loss and exercise first is a futile exercise. Focus on the message STATINS and develop a more aggressive plan to prevent Sudden Death by finding Subclinical atherosclerosis. As per p 188 in Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata, people do have some control over weight. Research shows that individuals have a range of weights, often spanning as much as 20 to 30 pounds. On 2/17/2006 I weighed 283 pounds. It is now 4 years later and I am at the lower range at 250 pounds. I did it with two hours of exercise a day. This is probably the best I can hope for as I am no longer in a semi-starvation state. I have regained a great deal of muscle. I still try to keep my calories to less than 2,000 a day but for every day I did not, my body took full advantage of it to get me back to 250 pounds. WHEN THE DOCTOR SAYS LOSE WEIGHT AND EXERCISE IT IS HEARD AS BLAH, BLAH, BLAH by the patient. THE PATIENT IS NOT FOOLED BY THIS EMPTY ADVICE. However when you show a patient his Calcium score or his CIMT > 50% risk; you can tell him something new and something he has heard of before. Therapeutic Lifestyle changes should be dropped from the new NCEP guidelines. It is pointless to state the obvious, especially when the obvious is not evidence based. Is there a diet that leads to permanent weight loss. Answer: No. The guidelines need to focus on what we can do cheaply and easily. Enduracin is a niacin that is safe at 1,000 mg. Simvasatin is generic statin that has the best evidence based backing. CIMT and CAC are available and can identify patients with disease at an early stage. This is the focus of a guideline that is easy for everyone to understand. I don't want to hear about the Framingham Risk score ever again. NO ONE USES IT AND IT UNDERESTIMATES RISK. I don't ever want to hear a cardiologist talk about diet and exercise again. NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO GET THEIR PATIENTS TO LOSE WEIGHT Anyone who disagrees with the above should read: Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata. References; Albert J Stunkark is quoted as saying "there is no fat person's eating behavior.' Ancel Keys had men of normal weight go on a weight loss diet. Their metabolism slowed by 40%. They became fixated on food. They act like people from the WWII concentration camps. Jules Hirsch found the obese had numerous and huge fat cells. People who lost 100 pounds look like someone who was never fat but they are different. By every measurement they seemed liked people who were starving. There were a few people in Dr Hirsc
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an easy, fascinating read. Well documented. It shows us clearly how much we are ignoring what the scientific realities of dieting and our bodies may be, in favor of maintaining our misconceptions. It is uncomfortable to realize that societal beliefs and the diet industry may be determining our ideas about what our and other people¿s bodies should look like rather than facts. It is even more uncomfortable to realize that we are judging other people¿s behaviors and looks on something that may be no more controllable than the color of their skin. That we encourage them to try for something that is virtually unobtainable and not even in their best health interest! If you think that it is a scientific fact that being over-weight in itself makes you at higher risk for an early death, read this book and ¿rethink¿. You will come away with a new perspective about health and looks. As usual, just when we think we have some answers, we find out we are still like the blind men trying to determine what an elephant looks like.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a therapist working in the field of compulsive/emotional eating for over 30 years, I cannot praise this book enough. Although well-researched and evidence-based, it's a lively read with some very personal, heartbreaking stories. Having authored two books on eating myself ''The Rules of 'Normal' Eating' and 'The Food and Feelings Workbook'' and treated hundreds of clients, I found that this book still had the power to change the way I view weight and eating. I only wish we could get the public to understand how complex the subject is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago