Review: Rethinking Thin

At the recommendation of a number of friends, I’ve started learning and researching about the Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size movements. This fits in well with my goals of learning about the science of health and nutrition, rather than just accepting the conventional wisdom that “everybody knows.” This ultimately brought me to Rethinking Thin, by Gina Kolata.

Rethinking Thin, though definitely flawed, pretty much blew my mind, and is a must-read for anyone starting down the road to a healthy lifestyle with an eye toward dropping weight in the process. Kolata marshals a whole lot of hard scientific evidence in support of the proposition that it is almost impossible to sustain any significant weight loss over time. The studies she presents are fascinating. The information they provide is demoralizing, and at the same time, freeing.

Kolata writes about twin and adoption studies showing how genetics trump nurture when it comes to what weight we end up at. A series of prison weight loss and gain studies show in painful detail how hard our bodies work to stay in the weight range they decide they like (a 15-30 pound window). Thin or fat, our inner weight thermostat thinks nothing of slicing metabolism in half or doubling it to maintain our original weight when bodies get too far from it. Kolata also presents some information beginning to undermine some of the conventional wisdom about how bad weight is for your health.

Clearly, Kolata’s ideas run counter to much of the common discourse around weight today, and the information is invaluable to help understand what is happening when we try to change ourselves. The book feels padded, though, which is a darn shame considering the richness and depth of the subject matter. Kolata includes too much historical background on dieting and body culture (though some of it is very valuable in understanding just how not-new most of our fad diets are). She spends too much time on the sad stories of dieters whose individual character arcs are tragically predictable. She can be a bit all over the place, seemingly at a loss to meticulously organize the pile of ideas and studies she throws at us.

I would have liked to see more in the book about the impact of some of the different diets and exercise regimens other than their effect (or lack thereof) on weight. Kolata at times seems to lose the big picture of health in favor of her pure focus on weight, seeming bewildered as to why it might be a good idea to encourage interventions such as exercise and less soda for reasons entirely apart from weight loss. I also feel like she could have given more than a narrative shoulder-shrug to the studies identifying significant social class differences in weight and what they might reveal.

All in all, the book is pretty revolutionary, and gives me a lot of new ways to think about weight and what goals are healthy and realistic. My biggest change? I started out with a weight loss goal in the form of a somewhat arbitrary number. But now, I think I’m moving towards just being curious about what kind of body my body really wants to be, and what kind of body it can be.

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