2012 Reading books

Reading 2012: Why We Get Fat

May 22, 2012

Asking why we get fat probably seems like asking why the sun rises and sets every day. For those of us in Western society, the answer seems pretty simple: the more calories we put in, the fatter we get; the fewer calories we consume (or, the more we burn), the less likely we are to get fat. At least that’s what the current science of weight gain seems to tell us. But in Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, Gary Taubes asks readers to consider that perhaps this (i.e., “calories in, calories out/burned”) is an oversimplified view and perhaps even totally wrong in some situations.

Contents:

Book I/Biology, Not Physics

  • 1. Why Were They Fat?
  • 2. The Elusive Benefits of Undereating
  • 3. The Elusive Benefits of Exercise
  • 4. The Significance of Twenty Calories a Day
  • 5. Why Me? Why There? Why Then?
  • 6. Thermodynamics for Dummies, Part 1
  • 7. Thermodynamics for Dummies, Part 2
  • 8. Head Cases

Book II/Adiposity 101

  • 9. The Laws of Adiposity
  • 10. A Historical Digression of “Lipophilia”
  • 11. A Primer on the Regulation of Fat
  • 12. Why I get Fat and You Don’t (or Vice Versa)
  • 13. What We Can Do
  • 14. Injustice Collecting
  • 15. Why Diets Succeed and Fail
  • 16. A Historical Digression on the Fattening Carbohydrate
  • 17. Meat or Plants?
  • 18. The Nature of a Healthy Diet
  • 19. Following Through

Instead of accepting the simple calories in, calories out view, Taubes explains the effect that specific types of foods have on insulin, and how that hormone affects weight gain. In other words, there are good calories and there are bad calories, and what you eat may have more of an effect than how much you eat. (He has written a book bearing such a theme in it’s title: Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health.) Of course, most of us know that to a degree: most of us know someone who might eat more or less than us, yet either we or they seem to gain more weight, even though eating less; or, we know someone who exercises regularly, yet retains a good bit of weight.

Taubes explains how refined sugars and carbohydrates, specifically, are main causes for insulin levels to rise, and when insulin levels rise, our body is unable to convert the fat to energy because of the high insulin levels. With the carbs, our bodies continue to need energy, yet because the carbs raise insulin levels, the fat isn’t burned and we continue to crave more food. Put simply, Taubes view sees foods rich in carbohydrates as one of the big problems in the rise of obesity.

In Taubes’ attempt to show that the calories in/calories out view of obesity is an oversimplification, I fear his carbohydrates-lead-to-obesity-explanation in some ways becomes an oversimplification, as well. While he does go into depth to explain questions this might raise (e.g., why some cultures with carb-heavy diets remain slimmer overall, why people do lose weight on diets not restricting carbohydrates, why carbs affect some people more and others less), I believe he makes statements that potentially undermine and obscure some of the important points he is trying to get across.

Overall, I found this book helpful, but read it knowing it wasn’t a diet book, but a somewhat anecdotal health-science book.

Related: “Why the Campaign to Stop America’s Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing” (a Newsweek article on The Daily Best by the author)

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