On Monday, May 10, at noon New York Times medical writer and Princeton resident Gina Kolata will speak at a benefit luncheon on behalf of 101:, a Princeton High School scholarship fund, at Eno Terra restaurant in Kingston.
Kolata’s presentation will be based on her book, “Rethinking Thin” (Picador, 2007), a journalist’s-eye view of America’s obsession with weight loss and the industry that reaps billions of dollars a year selling programs, trends, factoids, and ideals. Cost: $50. Call 609-497-1777 to register.
The following is an excerpt from “Rethinking Thin:”
Three obesity researchers were having breakfast at a medical were meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, a few years ago when their talk inevitably turned to the Atkins diet.
It had reached a new peak of popularity, and they were simply annoyed with the diet and the whole low-carb movement. It just irked them that this seemingly irrational way to lose weight, this seemingly unhealthy, if not dangerous, diet scheme, was being hailed as the secret to effortless and permanent weight loss. The whole Atkins movement was built on testimonials, they groused.
“We kept saying, ‘Nobody has any data,’” said Gary D. Foster, who was the clinical director of the weight loss center at the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, the three decided, Why not do a study?
The three fully expected to discredit it, showing it was no better, maybe even worse, than traditional diets for weight loss, and dangerous to boot. They just knew that the diet was going to do something awful to cholesterol levels and that people who followed it were going to be risking a heart attack.
And, they slowly realized, they also would be asking a question that, amazingly enough, had never been asked in a rigorous way: Is one diet any better than another? You might think that with all the years, all the decades, of obesity research, the answer would be obvious. It’s a question that, of course, would have been well studied.
But you would be wrong. That question, that fundamental question, had just been left dangling.
And so it began, the first attempt to compare the Atkins diet with something more traditional, the standard low-calorie, low-fat diet beloved of academic weight loss clinics.
The study took place at three medical centers — the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado, and Washington University in St. Louis — and was directed by the three doctors who conceived it.
No one could have been more surprised than these researchers when they saw the results.
The Atkins diet, they discovered, seemed better than the usual diet program, at least for the first six months; the subjects’ weight loss, an average of 7 percent of their body weight, was twice as good as with the low-calorie diet. Granted, no one lost much weight, and granted, 40 percent of each group dropped out, and granted, by the time a year was up, the two groups were about equal in their total weight loss and almost everyone in either group who lost weight had regained most of it.
Still, the Atkins diet, to the investigators’ astonishment, led to higher levels of HDL cholesterol, which is linked to protection against hart disease, and lower levels of triglycerides in the blood, which also indicated a reduced heart disease risk. The conventional diet did just the opposite.
“That’s not what we expected,” Foster said. “How did it happen. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it indifferent?” And, most important, “What is the best way to lose weight?”
For the millions of overweight people who have spent their lives obsessing about food, veering from one diet, one weight loss plan, to another, thinking about food and their weight every day of their lives, the question is all too immediate.
. . . Is it possible for most people to permanently lose weight? And, if so, how? If “a healthy lifestyle” were enough, would two-thirds of the nation have a weight problem? Would the nation be gripped by what is often called an obesity epidemic, as evidenced by the grim statistics of a growing national girth? The percentage of people who are overweight or obese was a whopping 47 percent in the period from 1976 to 1980, but now it is an even more whopping 64 percent.
The overweight say it is not that they don’t try to be thin. All they do is try, many say, but nothing seems to help.
They may never have asked whether there is any scientific evidence that one diet is better than another, but most have, in a sense, experimented by themselves, trying diet after diet, hoping to find one that will lead them to their dream weight. They long for the weight that would let them buy clothes in the size they think is really them, or that would give them the sort of confidence in their weight loss that would let them enjoy an ice cream cone without the dread that just a taste of a forbidden treat will set off an out-of-control eating binge or that would allow them to eat Thanksgiving dinner without the dismal conviction that they will pay for every bite with extra pounds.
The saga of people’s unending attempts to control their weight is a tale of science and society, of social mores and social sanctions, of politics and power. It raises questions of money and class, and of whether there is such a thing as free will when it comes to eating and body weight. It raises questions of how and why the discoveries of science, which have slowly chipped away at the reasons for obesity and the real health effects of being overweight, have been shunted aside by marketing and hucksterism and politics.
And it is a story of the secret world of the overweight, who fantasize about finally, at long last, getting thin. What is it like to know the calorie count of every morsel of food you see and to worry that a single spoonful of ice cream or a cube of Swiss cheese can send your eating spiraling out of control?
What is it like to face, as the National Academy of Sciences so bluntly put it, a “continuous lifelong struggle with no expectation that the struggle required will diminish with time?” And how did our society, today, end up with what may be the greatest disconnect ever between the body weight ideals that are held up as obtainable if you really try and the body weight realities for most people?
. . . If nothing else, I believe that research by scientists who have open minds about obesity and its causes and consequences is starting to open doors. I believe that we will see the fruits of that research and that they may not be what we expect ore what we hope for. But I also believe that one result will be that the age-old assumption that the perfect diet will somehow emerge will, eventually, fade away.