Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again by Traci Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Traci Mann received a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and taught several years at UCLA before moving to the University of Minnesota where she founded the Health and Eating Lab. Her research is focused on the psychology of eating.
An overriding theme driving the narrative of her book is her assertion that diets don't work. According to Mann, the research is clear. The majority of weight lost through dieting is regained. She argues (at times successfully, and at other times not so successfully) that the failure of diets is in large part due to the fact that our bodies have a set point (or rather weight range) at which their biological systems fight to stay. She, like others in her field, believe that weight is strongly influenced by genetics and the best that we can hope for is to stay at the lower end of our range.
She also devotes a whole chapter to dispelling what she believes is a common myth, that being fat is synonymous with poor health outcomes. According to Mann, not only are obese people the victims of relentless bullying and shaming, but that the abuse inflicted upon them is misguided because most obese people are not any sicker than their thinner, non-obese peers.
While I found her argument well-intentioned, I also found it to be somewhat insincere. For example, in one sense she is right. Obese people are often stigmatized as fat, lazy, slobs who could be thinner if they really wanted to be. She is also correct when she claims that no good comes from making people feel bad about themselves. But no sooner has she lobbied for the virtues of being obese/overweight then she suggests that not only should we strive to find our set point, but we should also stay at the lower end. If being obese isn't unhealthy, why should we strive for the low end of our set point? Why not the high end? For that matter, why even try?
Another major point in the book is that no one really understands why we are getting fatter, though there are a whole cast of usual suspects from supersized meals, to cheap, high-calorie fast food, to sedentary lifestyles, to genetics, to some unknown environmental factor. The reality is it could be all the above, some of the above, or none of the above.
She repeatedly warns about the futility of focusing on weight (something that may be out of our control at least to some extent), and encourages readers to instead focus on health and healthy behaviors like eating more fruits and veggies and limiting junk food.
I agree with Mann on many levels. 1. I don't think we completely understand what is driving the incidence of obesity. It is very likely a combination of factors. 2. I also agree that diets don't work. She is right. The research is clear. 3. I also share her view about focusing on health and healthy behaviors rather than on weight. It seems logical to assume that if we eat well and not too much while staying active that our bodies will naturally gravitate toward a healthy weight. 4. I also agree with this idea of a set-point. I've experienced this in my own life. Currently in my late 40s, my weight has not fluctuated by more than 10 lbs, with the exception of my 4 pregnancies. It does in fact seem as if my body gravitates toward a specific range. 5. What I don't agree with is her suggestion that obesity is not only not unhealthy but that it might even be healthy for all we know. It seems to me that part of the repulsion many people feel when they see fat humans is no different than the repulsion they feel when they see a fat animal. Yes, thin does not equal healthy and people can, do, and should come in all shapes and sizes, but I think the prejudice against fat goes much deeper and is maybe even more visceral than simple cultural norms. This absolutely is a slippery slope, but as a PT I see obese patients whose orthopedic problems are absolutely impacted negatively by their weight. We need to be able to separate the health risks of obesity or of the behaviors that typically result in obesity and the worth of those who may be struggling with extra weight. Being overweight does not make you a bad person, but it may impact your health.
Finally, Mann spends the last third of her book giving would-be-dieters advice that isn't dieting per see, but more a common sense approach to eating. The only real problem I had with this section is that she constantly uses herself as an example of "what to do." It just feels someone preachy...like if I can do it, so can you.
Overall, despite its faults, there's still some good stuff here.