“Although we learned long ago to abandon magical thinking in connection with weather, crops, the care of animals, and other natural phenomena, it still has us in its grip when we think of diet.” So writes Ruth Gay in her 1976 American Scholar essay, “Fear of Food.” And if you are like me — like many people, many women — you might feel that grip.
Simply asking what your relationship is to food reveals the disproportionately powerful role that eating plays, how what we consume intermingles with who we are and how we judge ourselves. We work under certain assumptions: that thin is beauty and health wrapped into one; that if we just eat less and exercise more, we will feel better, look better, and obtain a certain level of life perfection. Being overweight gets tangled in a string of judgments about laziness, slothfulness, unhealthiness, and even personal and moral failing.
In Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive our Obsession with Weight — and What We Can Do about It, Harriet Brown takes on our assumptions about obesity and health. Brown, science writer and author of Brave Girl Eating, combines personal narrative with extensive research. After delving into studies and interviewing experts, she concludes that we know less about this topic than one might hope. In fact, the most basic assumptions we make about thinness and health, obesity and illness, she writes, are less accurate than we think.
Studies have shown, for example, that those who are a little overweight tend to have slightly longer lifespans. And the much-touted link between obesity and diabetes may not be straightforward, either: Some researchers suggest that diabetes leads to obesity, rather than the other way around.
Brown emphasizes these contradictions within dieting, as they are contradictions many of us need to hear. Each year, fifty million people across the country start their diet on New Year’s Day in an attempt to shed pounds and get fit — but research shows that, over time, dieting actually leads to weight gain. Not only does it not seem to lead to long-term weight loss, Brown writes, some studies call into question its health benefits, too.
But to portray Brown’s book as merely a scientific exploration of weight would miss the deeply personal stories that she reveals, both her own and those of others. She lets us in on her own struggles with her weight, starting with the therapist who shocks her with the question, “What if you were OK with your body the way it is right now?” She is stunned, considers leaving — how could the therapist be this out of touch, she wonders — but she stays, recognizing that “if I walk out, I’ll be missing something big, something important.”
Brown also shares thoughts on her daughter’s anorexia (the subject of her last book), which puts counting calories in a whole new light. She interviews hundreds of people about their relationships with their weight and body image, and uses their stories to give the research a human side.
What to do with all this information, though? When so much of our energy has been placed on analyzing each morsel that crosses our lips, it’s hard to know how to proceed. In her final chapter, Brown takes on just these questions as she describes her own journey to adopt “competent eating,” a concept put forth by dietitian Ellyn Satter. Competent eating focuses on being mindful of internal cues of hunger and satiety. Satter defines normal eating, in part, as something that “takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.”
Satter, we learn, is the therapist who asked Brown what it would be like to accept her body — the one who helped launch Brown on this voyage. It was, of course, not an easy one. “I had to learn to trust my own appetite,” Brown writes, “and man, was that scary.” The process, she explains, is essentially learning how to feed oneself again.
Brown admits she is human: She still feels she would look better if she could lose fifteen pounds. But rather than agonize and obsess, she writes, “I choose instead to focus on what I do rather than what I weigh.” And that is something we can all aspire to.
Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive our Obsession with Weight — and What We Can Do about It
Da Capo Lifelong Books, March 2015
Hardcover, 304 pages