Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic Paperback – Sep 15 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
It's not obesity, but the panic over obesity, that's the real health problem, argues this scintillating contrarian study of the evergreen subject of American gluttony and sloth. Political scientist Oliver condemns what he feels is a self-interested "public health establishment"-obesity researchers seeking federal funding, pharmaceutical and weight-loss companies peddling diet drugs and regimens, bariatric surgeons and other health-care providers angling for insurance reimbursement-for spuriously characterizing fatness as a disease. He debunks the dubious science and alarmist PR that fuels their campaign, taking on arbitrary Body-Mass Index standards that slot even Michael Jordan in the overweight category, state-by-state maps of obesity rates that make fatness look like a contagion spreading over the countryside, and flimsy research studies that vastly exaggerate the danger and costs of weight gain. Oliver also examines American attitudes towards obesity, probing the abhorrence of fatness implicit in the Protestant ethic and, less plausibly, tying our contemporary feminine ideal of the emaciated supermodel to a confluence of sociobiology and the economics of the urban sexual marketplace. Arguing that fatness is perfectly compatible with fitness, he contends that scapegoating obesity drives Americans to experiment with dangerous crash diets, appetite suppressants and weight-loss surgeries, while distracting us from underlying harmful changes in the American lifestyle-mainly our incessant snacking on junk food and shunning of exercise and physical activity, of which weight gain is perhaps merely a "benign symptom." Oliver provides a lucid, engaging critique of obesity research and a shrewd analysis of the socioeconomic and cultural forces behind it. The result is a compelling challenge to the conventional wisdom about our bulging waistlines. Photos.
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"An extended polemic against the causal association of overweight and ill health. Ascrib[ing] to weight loss what might be better attributed to the life-style changes that produce weight loss is, Oliver claims, 'like saying whiter teeth produced by the elimination of smoking reduces the incidence of lung cancer.'"--The New Yorker
"Fat Politics skewers the conventional wisdom on obesity. Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, it is impossible to read this book without having your view of fat forever changed. I absolutely loved this book." --Steven D. Levitt, Professor of Economics, University of Chicago; author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
"It's not obesity, but the panic over obesity, that's the real health problem, argues this scintillating contrarian study of the evergreen subject of American gluttony and sloth.... Oliver provides a lucid, engaging critique of obesity research and a shrewd analysis of the socioeconomic and cultural forces behind it. The result is a compelling challenge to the conventional wisdom about our bulging waistlines."--Publishers Weekly
"Fat Politics is one of those rare books that manages to turn all your conventional ideas and easy assumptions on their heads, while somehow maintaining a probing, reasonable, and entertaining tone. Anyone who holds strong opinions--professional or personal--about American's obesity epidemic is going to have to grapple with this book." --Stephen Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter
"Eric Oliver's book debunks almost every conventional theory that causally relates obesity to diseases and early death. It will infuriate countless obesity researchers, weight-loss doctors, and the food, diet, and pharmaceutical industries. Whether or not you agree with all of his critiques, one thing is indisputable: the entire field badly needs a good shakeup." --Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D., Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, New England Journal of Medicine, and author of On The Take: How Medicine's Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health
"A damning indictment of a culture awash in the paradox of too much choice, the shame of too much consumption, and the fear of a moral vacuum.... In one well-argued, boldly titled chapter after another, Oliver advances his view that we have made fatness 'a scapegoat for all our ills' and explores how we harm ourselves by doing so."--Daphne Merkin, Elle Magazine
"In Fat Politics, Eric Oliver examines America's ongoing search for weapons of body mass destruction and reveals that the emperors of the current fat hysteria aren't wearing any clothes. This is an essential book for understanding the leading moral panic of our time. Fat Politics provides a particularly compelling analysis of the economic factors that have helped produce the current panic over fat. Fat Politics is the latest illustration of what happens when an academic whose work is not actually funded by the weight-loss industry takes a look at the evidence regarding the relationship between weight and health."--Paul Campos, Professor of Law, University of Colorado, and author of The Obesity Myth
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The book systematically goes through the evidence (but in a highly readable way) about how the idea of obesity came to be defined and how the idea that obesity was a disease became popularized (largely from a small group of weight loss doctors, diet hucksters, and bureaucrats).
Not only does he reveal the people who have been behind the scenes and promoting the idea that America's weight gain is an epidemic disease, he goes beyond this and describes why we hate fat people, why white women are expected to be thin, and most interesting why Americans are gaining weight and what this weight gain means.
Some interesting things that I learned from this book were 1) ceteris paribus, white women are twice as likely to be told be their doctor that they are overweight; 2) taxing junk food is only likely to make people eat worse; 3) the main reason why Americans gaining weight is not from super-size meals but from snacking; 4) the biggest source of the obesity epidemic is a powerpoint presentation; 5) the origins of the idea of obesity came from an astronomer.
I was not surprised to see that Steve Levitt, author of Freakonomics, said he "loved" this book on the back cover. Its the same kind of interesting and counterintuitive logic.
Oliver isn't saying that it's OK to weigh 400 lbs; instead, he points out that (except in the most extreme cases) the dangers of overweight and the benefits of losing weight are greatly exaggerated -- in fact, trying to lose weight can be more harmful to one's health than staying fat, and very thin people are often far less healthy than fat people. Numerous studies (which he cites in detail) have disproved the conventional wisdom, but these are routinely ignored or misinterpreted. He also points out that the main reason that the incidence of obesity has increased in America is not that Americans have gained a lot of weight, but rather that the threshold for classifying someone as "obese" has been lowered (duh!).
Oliver's most noteworthy point, I think, is this: excess weight is not the problem, it's a symptom. The real culprits in "weight-linked" diseases aren't the pounds themselves, but the behaviors and conditions associated with them. Fat people who exercise are healthier than thin people who don't; following a healthy diet is beneficial even if it doesn't lead to weight loss; and many conditions (such as insulin resistance) are likelier to be the cause of excess weight, rather than the other way around.
From my own experience, I can confirm Oliver's contention that doctors' obsession with weight loss as a cure-all often diverts them from dealing with the real problem. High blood pressure runs in my family, and afflicts both fat and thin people; but the same doctors who prescribed medication for my thin relatives told me that ALL I had to do was lose weight and my blood pressure would go down. After 30 years (!), during which my weight was all over the map while my blood pressure steadily climbed, I finally found a doctor who listened to reason, and I've kept my blood pressure under control ever since with medication. (Footnote: A few years later, I lost 40 lbs -- and my blood pressure didn't budge.)
Being a political scientist and a statistician, Oliver also offers his conclusions about the social implications of fat, which I found interesting but not always convincing (his argument for why thinness is valued in white women seemed rather circular to me). The chief value of the book, I think, is that he's done an excellent job of amassing the medical and statistical data, and showing that many of our assumptions about obesity are based on myth rather than fact.
But most enjoyable aspect of the book is how readable it is. This is no slog through dry statistics about our weight and health. Nor is it a finger wagging polemic whose substance is obvious from the first pages. "Fat Politics" is a lively, even gripping read as Oliver takes us on a tour through the cultural history of weight and the relationship between modern capitalism and weight gain. Readers of "Freakonomics" or "The Tipping Point" will find here a similar irreverence for conventional wisdom and compelling set of contrary arguments. Even if you don't agree with every one, "Fat Politics" will leave you with a new way of thinking about the debate and a heightened skepticism about the received wisdom on the topic.
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