Book Review: Why We Get Fat

I found Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be provocative and persuasive. It challenged my long held assumption that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Taubes’ hypothetical exposes the oddity of the “eat less, exercise more” maxim:

Imagine you’re invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef’s talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you’re told—come hungry. How would you do it? You might try to eat less over the course of the day—maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason. Now let’s think about this for a moment. The instructions that we’re constantly being given to lose weight—eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)—are the very same things we’ll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more. Now the existence of an obesity epidemic coincident with half a century of advice to eat less and exercise more begins to look less paradoxical.

I also liked this sentence:

To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.

The thesis of the book is that what you eat determines weight loss. Namely, what kind and how many carbohydrates. Taubes advocates the Atkins diet — low carb, high protein, high fat. Taubes is a science journalist, not a researcher himself, so he positions himself as a syntheizer of the literature. Here’s his recent podcast interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For a more skeptical take, here’s a blog post from Scientific American.

I reccomend Why We Get Fat to anyone interested in nutrition, diet, and health. Thanks to Saar Gur and Tod Sacerdoti for the recomendation.

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Also from the book: diet and disease:

Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is one of the primary reasons why public-health experts believe that there are dietary and lifestyle causes for all these diseases, even cancer—that they’re not just the result of bad luck or bad genes.

To get a feel for the kind of modern evidence supporting this idea, consider breast cancer. In Japan, this disease is relatively rare, certainly not the scourge it is for American women. But when Japanese women emigrate to the United States, it takes only two generations for their descendants to experience the same breast-cancer rates as any other local ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is causing breast cancer.

Colon cancer is ten times more common in rural Connecticut than in Nigeria. Alzheimer’s disease is far more common among Japanese Americans than among Japanese living in Japan; it’s twice as common among African Americans as among rural Africans. Pick a disease from the list of Western diseases, and a pair of locations—one urban, say, and one rural, or one Westernized and one not—compare people in the same age groups, and the disease will be more common in the urban and Westernized locations and less common outside them.

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