Body of Truth by Harriet Brown

One of my reading goals for next year is to read books that feature body-positive themes.  I don’t know about you, but as I approach my fortieth year, I’m exhausted by battling my body.  I’m exhausted by viewing foods as “good” and “bad” and feeling either virtuous or full of self-loathing depending on which I eat.  What I seek is clarity on what really matters, peace with myself, and the pursuit of health even if it doesn’t result in weight loss.  I want a healthy relationship with food and I want to move my body in ways I enjoy. Sounds simple when you read it yet (for me) it’s actually anything but.

519rtaeemkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_So I began my reading resolution a bit early with Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It. It’s a slim book, just 274 pages, including 60+ pages of notes and index.  You can tell that she’s done her research.  But you can also feel how deeply personal this issue is for her, both as a woman and as a mother of a daughter who battled anorexia.

A sixth-grade “wellness” class kicked off both her anxiety about eating and her interest in health.  Though her weight was normal, she started to worry about being fat.  She cut out desserts, telling us she’d learned that sugar was unhealthy.  Over the next six months or so, her restricting took on a life of its own, and eventually turned into full-blown anorexia that nearly killed her.

What I really liked about this book was the way Brown made me rethink my assumptions about weight and health.  I’d already thought that being overweight does not automatically equate to poor health, because people can still be active and have healthy blood tests yet still carry extra weight. Conversely, some people are naturally thin but don’t exercise at all; they may have chronic health problems too.  The first chapter is devoted to chipping away at the four most common myths (or lies, as she puts it) about weight and health:  1) That we’re all getting fatter and fatter; 2) Obesity can take at least a decade off your life; 3) Being fat causes heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses; and 4) Dieting makes us thinner and healthier.  The last one gets its own full chapter.

Dieting can make people thinner for a while – six months, a year or two, maybe three.  Which, coincidentally, is about how long most studies follow dieters, and how they claim success.  In reality, your change of maintaining significant weight loss for five years or more is about the same as your chance of surviving metastic lung cancer: 5 percent.  …only 3 to 5 percent of dieters who lose a significant amount of weight keep it off.

You’d never know any of this from reading the weight loss research, or talking with most researchers in the field.  In fact, when I asked the University of Alabama’s David Allison about dieting research, he insisted that studies do show success after five years, ‘just less than what we’d push for.’  I told him I was aware of only one research project that followed dieters for five years or more, the Look AHEAD project, a ten-year study of people with type 2 diabetes.  I asked Allison to point me toward other studies that followed dieters for five years or more, regardless of their findings.  He couldn’t come up with any.  

Brown wants her reader to question what they think they “know” about weight and health.  Who controls the purse strings for weight loss drug research?  Do doctors feel and exhibit obesity bias towards their patients?  Does yo-yo dieting eventually destroy a person’s metabolism?  Is prodding kids and adults into weight loss by any method necessary, including shaming, worth the emotional and physical risks involved?  These are some of the issues Brown addresses.  Besides including her own life long experience being 50-ish pounds “overweight” and yo-yo dieting over the years, and her daughter’s experience, she also includes interviews from people who have struggled with unhealthy behaviors and attitudes about weight, both their own and those of others around them.

The big takeaway for me from this book is the pursuit of health at any size.  “Normal” eating includes a range of foods and behaviors, and is much more flexible than most of us allow for ourselves.  We should all be giving ourselves permission to enjoy food, to seek a balanced diet, to engage in fun ways to move our bodies.  There is a lot of money to be made by the diet, pharmaceutical, and medical industries, not to mention women’s magazines, in keeping people dieting and hating themselves.  Brown wants us to be able to think critically about weight and health, not blindly swallow all that the diet and medical industries tell us.  As she points out, there is still that science simply doesn’t know about weight loss and the human body (like how to keep us thin, for one.)  It is a highly individual process.

I consider this a good, solid book to put in your body-positive arsenal.  There are so many passages I jotted down from this book that I’d love to share with you, but in the interest of brevity I’ll end with one of my favorites:

We’d do better for ourselves and our children if, instead of pushing diets and surgeries and medications, we looked at real-world strategies for eating more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, dancing and playing sports, and other joyful physical activities.  And especially if we supported those things for everyone, no matter what they weighed.

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29 thoughts on “Body of Truth by Harriet Brown

  1. Do doctors exhibit obesity bias? I would laugh at this question, but it’s too sad. I’ve never met one who didn’t. (I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter. I have lost 50-100 pounds four times so far.)

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  2. I gave up following healthy eating advice about twenty years ago and have been much happier ever since. I reckon most of us eat healthily enough – it’s only two or three generations since people worried about starvation and malnutrition, now we’re all supposed to worry about obesity and cholesterol. And yet longevity rates keep increasing… It makes me laugh, in fact, whenever they give whatever the new health warning or advice is – eat more fish – the oils are good for you! Eat less fish – it’s full of toxins! Don’t eat butter – bad fat! Eat more butter – turns out it’s good for you after all! If they stopped talking rubbish perhaps I’d be willing to pay a bit more attention…

    I’m glad you’ve decided to get off the treadmill, and hope you’ll be able to enjoy the food and exercise you enjoy. As he opened another chocolate biscuit, my father always used to say he’d rather be happy and die at 70 than live to be 120 miserable…

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    1. I admire your attitude, FictionFan! I’m striving for true enjoyment of food, not feeling guilty or bad when I eat sweets or whatever is the “forbidden” food. I agree, dietary advice is always changing and is confusing! Something’s going to get us in the end anyway, right? Might as well eat butter, I say!

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  3. I was tremendously scowly by the time I got to the word “self-loathing.” I hate that these shitty science facts that aren’t even based in good science make so many people feel terrible about themselves. I don’t like that so many of my friends feel crappy about themselves as a result. You are awesome, and I am glad you are reading books that unpack some of this stuff and what it all means, and I will ferret-stomp any bad feelings you ever have about yourself, you gorgeous, brilliant dandelion tropical fish lady.

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    1. Jenny, you win the comments for this post! 🙂 Seriously, though, thank you. I hate that I’ve gotten to almost 40 carrying around all this crap in my head. It makes me angry. I’m angry for EVERYONE I know who has issues with their body image in whatever capacity. Hopefully this anger can carry me through to some positive action.

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  4. As a French woman (who is supposed to not get fat but is definitely round), I don’t think I ever had food issues, but body image problems I certainly have. I have never been one to diet, but I am trying to eat more consciously (seasonal, real foods, and less meat), and I don’t really want to think about the kilos in or out. I love the last quote of your post, it’s so true!

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    1. Thanks for the perspective from France! I thought after I’d written my post that it was very America-centric, and perhaps in other countries people aren’t as brainwashed about diet, weight, and health as we are here. Conscious eating sounds like a good thing. Thanks for reading!

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  5. Food and body issues are so hard aren’t they? It is a constant struggle to be positive in a cultural that that says you should hate your body. You might be interested a blog run by some Canadian feminist philosophers, Fit is a Feminist Issue https://fitisafeministissue.com/ Don’t worry, it is not philosophical babble, it is about fitness and body image and food and all the stuff you mention in this post and then some.

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    1. Naz, it’s so easy to be misinformed when scientific “news” seems to change all the time. Plus, pressure from the diet/pharma industries doesn’t help the search for clarity. Thanks for reading. I hope to read more enlightening books and post more about this issue in the coming year!

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  6. Thank you for reviewing this book! I am asking the #diversebookbloggers group to consider including fat in their list of what diversity includes. I’ve got three books by or about fat women in the coming weeks! Also there is a WordPress blog about food and thinking about food that is really good. The posts are short and sweet up like a blog, not a website. The link is on my blogroll if you are interested!

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      1. This whole idea gets me really excited. I will certainly keep an eye out for posts from you guys regarding body positivity. In a world where being rich and thin is King, it’s important to focus on poor and fat as socially acceptable. Whether together or not; I think even talking about it will help the fight.

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  7. Okay I HAVE to read this. I have been increasingly interested in the contradictory scientific “findings” when it comes to diet and exercise. Something is off when each study disagrees with the next. I’ve been watching a bunch of documentaries that mention this, and I am currently reading the book Diet Cults which delves into this as well. (It’s not the most body-positive book I’ve ever read; some of his side remarks on people’s body types make me cringe, but overall it’s been a very interesting read.)

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    1. Caitlin, I do recommend this book if you’re interested in weight and science. Brown has done a lot of research, clearly because it’s an issue dear to her heart. I know it made me want to read diet advice with a much more skeptical eye. Thanks for commenting!

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  8. Wow. This sounds incredibly powerful and like something everyone should read. The relationship between health and happiness is complex. But it sounds like Harriet Brown did a good job dissecting it– and with 60+ pages of notes and reference, she really researched it!

    If you are looking for body-positive texts for 2017, I strongly recommend Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. It’s a collection of humorous essays (Lindy started as a comedienne before being a journalist) about her fights with being “fat” and what it means to fully love yourself. It’s one of my top books for 2016.

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  9. I think the fact that you might be reading more of these books and talking about them on your blog will be helpful for so many people. There are so many books out there on the subject that it’s hard to know which are the good ones. Good luck with your journey to 40! I turned 40 a couple of years ago, and I’m loving it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Naomi, you’re right, there are so many books out there about this topic. I hope to find some good ones! And thank you for saying what you did about 40 – for some reason this birthday is throwing me a little bit! Mid-life crisis I guess? Who knows. So glad to hear you’re loving your forties!

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