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5.0 out of 5 stars Super-sizing the proles, May 21, 2003
This review is from: The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin (Hardcover)
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." She predicts that, unless something is done, "virtually all Americans will be overweight by 2030, and half will be obese." (p. 230)
Why? Lack of will-power? Lack of exercise? Our genetic constitution? Ignorance? Indoctrination through advertising by the fast and junk food industries? Answer: all of the above except lack of will-power. When it comes to eating, will-power really has nothing to do with it. Food is a "drug" we can't quit cold turkey. Abstinence is impossible. We must eat, and so the temptation to overeat and/or eat the wrong foods will always be with us. Not only that but we are constantly being bombarded with messages from the purveyors of food to eat this, eat that, eat more, more and more. Super-sizing the proles is a massively huge business.
So what to do? Are we looking at a future in which most of us are round mounds of huffing and puffing blubber subject to diabetes and an early death? Shell is hopeful. She believes that if we can somehow regulate the fast food industry in a manner similar to way we are regulating the tobacco industry (see the final chapter), if we educate the public, and turn down the constant din of fast and junk food advertizing, and keep sodas and junk food out of our schools while increasing exercise programs especially for school children, there is hope. However, as Shell illustrates graphically by the story she tells on herself to end Chapter Ten, it is more likely that instead of exercising, we will get into the car, "rev the engine, and steer toward dinner."
Regardless of how daunting the public health task of reducing obesity is, Shell makes it a fascinating read. She writes about the morbidly obese and their struggles with stomach stapling and gastric banding; about cultures lured away from their native diets by Spam, pizza and sugared sodas so that virtually everyone from child to adult is fat and many are diabetic (e.g., the Kosraen islanders of the South Pacific); about "Natural Born Freaks" (Chapter Three) children born with a genetic defect that makes them constantly hungry no matter how much or how often they eat; about being hungry during wartime or during food-deprivation experiments in which the hungry can think and talk of nothing but food and more food; and especially about "Big Food" which views critics as "food cops...intent on using junk science to build a socialist nanny state" (p. 230)
As I read the book and followed Shell's research I could see her learning the melancholy lesson that "Obesity represents a triumph of instinct over reason" (p. 221). I could sense her early optimism giving way to a realization that "The labyrinth of genes, peptides, and hormones regulating food intake is dense and byzantine, extremely difficult to fool or to manipulate." (p. 147) This is a lesson that Shell presents well. What it means is that all those scientists looking for the magic pill that will allow us to "lose pounds fast" (and incidentally make big bucks for themselves and their employer) are not likely to be successful any time soon.
Most of us know, as Shell reports, that people who go on diets of any kind may initially lose weight, but almost invariably gain it all back and usually with pounds to boot. The reason quite simply is that we can't fool mother nature. The evolutionary mechanism has structured in us the very fine ability to eat when there is a bounty of food so that we can put on fat to survive the inevitable times of lean. This is what we are good at. It is one of our talents. Mother nature isn't about to leave fat-storage to chance in human beings anymore than it leaves reproduction to chance. Dieting is just a mimicking of a time of lean. It has no lasting value as fat-reducing behavior.
Shell's prescription for individuals is the obvious and the very difficult one: turn off the TV, get off the couch, don't get into that vehicle, in fact trade the entire TV/car culture in for one in which we walk a whole lot more, actively recreate a lot more, eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less high-fat and high-carb other words do those things that in fact we are not likely to do.
This is a very readable, well-researched, and incisive look at what is rapidly becoming the number one public health problem in not only the United States but world-wide. Shell covers the subject well and writes the kind of prose that turns pages and makes a difficult subject readily accessible.
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Review Details



Dennis Littrell

Location: SoCal

Top Reviewer Ranking: 1,068