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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Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann

Oh, how I love a good self-help book, especially if it deals with weight loss and/or body image.  Without going into detail let me just say this is an area of great interest to me.  Secrets from the Eating Lab is a book I’d recommend to just about anyone, even if you’re not overweight yourself.  It’s an informative, persuasive, fast read that will have you saying, “Never diet again!” and perhaps lacing up your walking shoes.IMG_2179

Even though she is an academic and she shares lots of scientific research to bolster her ideas, Traci Mann writes with a light, familiar touch.  She makes it clear that she wants people to enjoy their lives, whether or not they are overweight or obese by our society’s standards.  It’s a refreshing tone, frankly.  In the chapter titled “Obesity is Not a Death Sentence” Mann looks at a compilation of numerous studies about whether or not obese people live shorter life spans than “normal weight” people (BMI 18.5-25.)  Turns out that the ratio of overweight people’s death rates to normal weight folks was 1, meaning the risk of death is the same for both groups.  Even people classified as Obese Class 1 (BMI 30-35) had a ratio of 1 with normal weight people.  It wasn’t until the Obese Class 2 (BMI 35-40) and higher did a biostatistician find a risk ratio higher than 1, and even then in only a third of the studies.   Mann goes on to write that there are many other factors involved in whether or not being overweight is bad for you, like your socioeconomic status (poor and undereducated people may not see the doctor until it’s too late or have access to fresh food) and your stress level (more stress = health problems.)  Where you carry your weight (abdominal area vs. hips and thighs) also correlates to specific health problems, even if you’re not obese.

Rather than obsess about the number on the scale, Mann wants the reader to take steps to eat better and get more exercise.  She provides “Smart Regulation Strategies” which are simple ways to improve your health.  One of my favorites was called “Be Alone With a Vegetable,” which means try to eat a veggie or salad before you eat anything else.   That way your only option is the healthy item, which will make you fuller and leaves less room in your belly for whatever else you might eat at that meal.  And you’re sure to get your veggies in that way.  She also advocates making things as easy as possible by washing and chopping your vegetables as soon as you bring them home.  How many times have vegetables died a slow death in your refrigerator crisper?  I know I’ve wasted money and good food far more than I’d like to admit, simply out of laziness and not remembering the asparagus or broccoli until it was too late.

Mann really wants us all to get more exercise, but not for weight loss.  The other benefits of exercise, both physical (lowering blood pressure, resting heart rates, need for medications)  and mental (helping mild to moderate depression and anxiety, etc.) are proven over and over.  She wants us to find the types of exercise that we enjoy, whether it’s a yoga class or running or hiking, which will make it easier to keep it up long term.  She makes a good case that doctors and the media should be touting the benefits of exercise to us all, removed from the prospect of weight loss.

I really enjoyed this book, both in message and delivery.  It was easy to read and I like her common-sense approach to a very touchy subject that many people struggle with.  In the end she quotes one of my heroes, writer Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery:  “Your body is not your masterpiece – your life is.”   I can totally get behind that idea.