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Book Review: Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It - by Gary Taubes

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of weight loss books on the market. So, what makes Gary Taubes new book Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (Knopf, 2010) stand out from all the others? Taubes, a scientific journalist, may today be one of the most-read and well educated writers on the topic of obesity. In follow up to his 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes has updated some of the thoughts in his original book, while making the text more consumer-friendly. Why We Get Fat is intended to provide the reader with a review of what research says about weight management instead of popular theories.

In the first section of the book, Taubes does a thorough, but not overly complicated review of common thought around weight gain and obesity. He also details the Law of Thermodynamics, a principle that is a foundation to the calorie balance equation: the calories in, calories out approach to weight management.

We’re told all the time that people are overweight because they eat too much. Taubes challenges this concept with an examination of the hormones and other factors that influence children’s growth. With growth spurts, kids’ hormones signal their appetites that they should eat. In much the same way, he builds the case that when adults’ hormones are not working normally, they’ll provide the same signals to support the growth of their fat stores. Thus, the more the fat cells grow, the more people want to eat.

A major factor in this hormone-driven weight gain is insulin. As high levels of carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrate, are consumed by people with metabolic dysfunction, insulin is chronically produced, causing cravings for more carbohydrates and signaling the body to store more and more fat.

Another myth Taubes addresses is that obesity is a disease of wealthy nations. Quite to the contrary, he points out how some of the poorest nations suffer from the greatest amounts of obesity. These people aren’t filling up on rich meals and deserts; they’re eating some of the lowest-priced foods, such as refined grains and cereals.

The fact that obesity is common among the poor suggests weight gain is not just a result of being too sedentary or eating too much food. Often, those in the poorest areas are quite active, and, with a lack of finances, do not buy excessive amounts of food. As explained in Why We Get Fat, eating fewer calories and exercising more, especially when focusing only on calorie levels, has resulted in poor results in weight management. There is clearly more to the issue of weight management than eating less or exercising more.

In summing up the lack of scientific support for the “eat less, move more” approach to weight management, Gary says:

This history of science suggests another interpretation: If people have been thinking about this idea for more than a century and trying to test it for decades and they still can’t generate compelling evidence that it’s true, it’s probably not. We can’t say it’s not with absolute certainty, because science doesn’t work that way. But we can say there’s now an exceedingly good chance it’s simply wrong, one of the many seemingly reasonable ideas in the history of science that never panned out. And if reducing calories-in doesn’t make us lose weight, and if increasing calories-out doesn’t even prevent us from gaining it, maybe we should rethink the whole thing and find out what does.

Throughout much of the rest of the book, Taubes shows how much of an impact hormones can have on our ability to manage weight, and what type of weight, fat or muscle, we lose or gain. A variety of factors affect our body’s hormones, including stress, diseases, genetics, environmental toxins and sleep. However, one of the most controllable factors affecting our hormones is the food we eat every day. After decades of being told we can eat whatever we want as long as we don’t eat too much, this could be a bitter pill to swallow.

After reading Why We Get Fat, you’ll likely view your food choices in an entirely different light. In addition, you will have a solid background to distinguish truth and fiction among the many weight management theories floating around the airwaves and Internet.

Why We Get Fat is not a diet book. In fact, Taubes doesn’t even suggest a diet plan to follow. However, after reading the book, the right choices should be pretty obvious. I’d recommend this book, as well as Good Calories, Bad Calorie to anyone interested in nutrition and metabolism. If you haven’t spent a ton of time reading about nutrition and metabolism, Why We Get Fat is a great place to start. Buy the book. Share your thoughts.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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