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The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin [Hardcover]

Ellen Shell
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 1 2002
Americans spend $33 billion annually on diet and exercise programs, yet we are fatter than ever -- and it's killing us. According to a recent Surgeon General's report, more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight, including a growing number of children, all of whom face such increased, potentially life-threatening health risks as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The Hungry Gene takes an unflinching look at the spreading obesity pandemic, guiding readers through the ongoing quest to unravel the genetic and behavioral basis of one of the most vexing scientific mysteries of our time. Acclaimed science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell goes to the front lines of the struggle against fat -- from the quiet facility in Maine where the first superobese mice were bred more than thirty years ago, to Rockefeller University in New York where scientists worked around the clock to isolate the gene that causes obesity. Along the way Shell looks at how medicine is dealing with the fat crisis with radical and controversial surgical techniques, what the incidence of mordant obesity among native islanders in Micronesia tells us about its evolutionary roots, and how drug companies are racing to create a pill to cure this "Trillion Dollar Disease." She also takes aim at the increasingly obesity-enabling culture that lies behind the crisis -- from the expanding suburban sprawl that has fostered America's car-centered sedentary lifestyle to the fast-food marketers who prey on the jammed schedules of today's two-income families. Weaving science, history, and personal stories, the narrative builds to a powerful conclusion that reveals how we can beat the obesity pandemic before it beats us. Gripping and provocative, The Hungry Gene is the unsettling saga of how the world got fat -- and what we can do about it. "An indefatigable reporter with a novelist's sense of character and drama ..." -- John Horgan, author of The End of Science

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From Publishers Weekly

More than 1.1 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese. How and why did the world get so fat? Shell, a journalist and codirector of the Program in Science Journalism at Boston University, explores the issue from many angles including the roles of genetics, pharmaceutical companies, the food industry and social class. She charts the growth in scientific research on obesity and obesity treatments in the last decade (from stomach stapling to the notoriously dangerous drug Fen-Phen), explaining the biology of metabolism that makes it so difficult to circumvent the body's appetite. Shell also explores the lifestyle culprits behind obesity, traveling to Micronesia to document the residents of the island of Kosrae, whose average life span has plummeted in recent years due to the introduction of high-fat Western food. Though she lucidly explains the physiology of fat, Shell fills the book with chatty profiles of patients and doctors ("Rudy Leibel is a small man and trim... He has a degree in English literature, and a weakness for poetry") and her prose reads like that of a glossy magazine. There is also much in the book that may be familiar to readers; the spotlights on new obesity treatments are compelling, but it will come as no surprise that too much high-fat, calorie-dense food and too little exercise trigger obesity. On the other hand, given that Big-Tobacco-style class-action lawsuits against fast food companies are under consideration, some may find Shell's arguments for the regulation of junk-food TV advertising, among other measures, timely and provocative.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This is not quick-fix diet book. It's a science journalist's study of why we are fatter than ever (60 percent of Americans should be skipping dessert today) and what is being done about it.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Obesity Marketeers May 1 2004
Format:Hardcover
While one can be grateful and admire the authors' acknowledgement of the marketing of obesity-just how much the obsessive desire of normal weight people to be stick thin body builders viciously escalated today's obesity epidemic is, of course as with all these eat less move more, political books never really examined. To her credit she is more sympathetic than scolding, and acknowledges homo sapiens' stunning ability to survive famine through "famine" metabolism control, (I wish I could regulate my heater so effectively in the winter!) and superior carb storing ability as fat. (If only I could get this kind of return on my bank acct. for such minimal but constant deposits!) The hope based on ignorance of this physiological truth is what the diet industries profits from with it's-hello-eat less! starvation sports drinks and reducing teas. This is the real evil cuplrit here-NOT Fast food! Who was believing that fast food supersized meals were beneficial to your health anyhow? No one, at least in that industry, was preying on false hope and America's moral obsession with thinness and fitness. In that sense "health bars" such as Jamba Juice, where one gulped down thousands of calories of fructose and fat free soy while the other hand slammed one's face with fat free carbs hoping to regain one's compromised modern health is the real problem. The junk food eaters woud've always been part of America's once stable fat percentage, but over looked is what compounded and created the Obesity epidemic one hears about ad nauseum: those miserable, self-loathing healthy eaters adhering tragically to the eat low fat replaced with earth sustaining carbs-move into the gymn self-flagelaters who found themselves more and more exhausted, deprived and self-blaming only to wake up fatter somehow. Read more ›
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3.0 out of 5 stars Phat start...thin finish Aug. 27 2003
Format:Hardcover
Keeping the food theme alive, I'll start by way of analogy...
Have you ever dined at a fine restaurant, had a well planned, beautifully executed and thought provoking meal, only to have the entire experience scuttled by a ho-hum dessert and a burnt cup of coffee? Such was my encounter with The Hungry Gene.
Author Ellen Shell, a consistent contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, is among the top science writers in the United States today and she adroitly demonstrates her literary and research skills in every piece she creates. This book is no exception as she sets the stage with great finesse and takes us through a brief monograph of the philosophy and treatment of obesity from ancient history to the mid twentieth century. She then moves to the early theories of genetics and obesity and on to the core of her book, the absolutely riveting story (full of juicy back-stabbing details and deal making) of Dr. Jeffrey Friedman and his research team's obsessive search for the magic genetic bullet to cure obesity, and the resulting avarice of the pharmaceutical industry in trying to procure and apply the research.
Shell then elaborates on the genetic ties to obesity through a chapter dedicated to the Kosrae people (an indigenous Micronesian population brought to obesity by the Westernization of their foodways) and a chapter concerning pediatric and adolescent obesity illustrated through the study of children conceived and born during the Nazi siege of Holland of 1944-45 and additional prenatal research performed by Dr. David Barker, a Southampton, UK based epidemiologist. These studies are sited in support of the strong correlation between a pregnant mother's food intake and a child's pre-disposition towards obesity.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fast Food Nation Lovers Rejoice! Aug. 4 2003
Format:Hardcover
Anyone who enjoyed Fast Food Nation is going to love this book, because it makes clear why what we're eating and how we're living, has created the biggest public health problem since smoking. I really don't know where to begin getting into it, because this slim volume is so complete, covering everything from what starvation studies told us about why we eat, to the genetics of appetite, to social influences on eating behavior, to prenatal programming of obesity. It gets deep into the politics of the food industry, and into food marketing to children. It explains how changes in the diet made industry rich, and a growing number of people around the world fat and diabetic. It nails the smoking gun of the obesity epidemic, which is the impact of an obesegenic environment on suseptible genes--genes that most of us have, by the way. It doesn't eliminate personal responsibility as a factor in obesity, but it does show why some of us are more likely than others to over eat and why and what can be done about it. I read Hungry Gene in one sitting, on a cross country flight from New York to LA, because it was so well written, and so darn interesting. I mean, there is a whole chapter on Kosrae, Micronesia where an entire population got fat in just one generation, and that is written almost like a travel piece, with great verve and with tons of information. There's another very graphic and chilling chapter on stomach surgery, which incorporates a whole history of obesity treatments. There's another chapter on this scientist in the UK who is showing that obesity can be programmed in the womb. There's even a chapter on food marketing, where the author crashes a conference for food marketers and exposes how they con our kids into craving all their junk. It's entertaining, incredibly informative, and terribly important stuff. So buy it, read it, and then see if you can watch just one more fast food ad on tv without throwing the remote at the set.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening and Comprehensive
If you enjoyed Jungle or Fast Food Nation, and/or are a nutrition/health enthusiast, this book is a must-read. Read more
Published on Jan. 26 2004 by Anand Rangarajan
5.0 out of 5 stars Important reading for everyone
Author Ellen Ruppel Shell puts the obesity epidemic in proper perspective with remarkable skill and thoroughness. She cites it as the no. 2 public health risk factor in the U.S. Read more
Published on July 28 2003 by Ann Sherwin
5.0 out of 5 stars Super-sizing the proles
Science journalist Ellen Shell notes near the end of this fascinating study about being fat and how we got that way that "Twenty-seven percent of Americans are already obese. Read more
Published on May 21 2003 by Dennis Littrell
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book about an Important Problem
This is a very interesting book regarding the current scientific research on the biological and social causes of obesity and what society is doing about it (not that much). Read more
Published on April 9 2003 by Bert Krages
5.0 out of 5 stars Guts, Gore, Truth
I loved this book. It has everything the others don't have, mystery, adventure, even gore, but hey, this is the human body we're talking about here, what did you expect? Read more
Published on March 6 2003 by C. Thompson
4.0 out of 5 stars A Healthful Appetizer
This book takes as its starting point the perception that people are getting too fat in general, and that a significant percentage of adults and even children are actually obese,... Read more
Published on Feb. 26 2003 by James R. Mccall
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing
I bought the Hungry Gene after reading some great reviews of it--and I was not disappointed. This book is the Fast Food Nation of obesity-- thoroughly researched, well argued, and... Read more
Published on Feb. 11 2003 by Nathan Day
1.0 out of 5 stars Misinformed
This writer is poorly informed about her subject. Her critique of Dr. Atkins in 100% incorrect. You would think that she would have done some research before criticizing him, but... Read more
Published on Feb. 4 2003 by Mike Finn
3.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Riddle Ever
I have not read this book. I have, however, read reviews of it and articles written by it's author. I have also been overweight, but not for the past 20 years. Read more
Published on Feb. 2 2003 by Just Jane
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book with a few problems...
In the spirit of revealing any biases I might have about the material discussed in this book, I must state that I'm both fat and a fat-acceptance activist. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2003 by Sarah Brodwall
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