I Should Probably Be Fat

I’m finding that i only really remember the books i write reactions to, while everything else i read fades pretty quickly from my memory. Thus, my triumphant return to book reviews. I hope you enjoy.

Why We Get Fat French Women Don't Get Fat

I recently read a couple of books about—well, fat. And they were both good, to different degrees and for different reasons. The first was Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It by Gary Taubes, and the second was French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. While the former was well-researched, well-argued and smart, i thought the latter was anecdotal, nonscientific and a little bit boastful, but still for the most part worth reading. And, in fact, i felt i was able to glean the best advice from Guiliano’s book having read Taubes first and knowing where the text was probably flat-out incorrect.

I really think everyone ought to read Why We Get Fat. Everyone in America, especially, including the dietitians, personal trainers and doctors out there (hear me, family? :)). If you disagree with Taubes, that’s perfectly fine. But you might want to do some research of your own to decide whether you disagree because you’ve been told otherwise, or because you can find evidence that contradicts the stuff he’s found.

Basically, Taubes argues that what we all know about weight management—that you must balance calories in/calories out, that saturated fat causes heart disease, etc.—is almost certainly wrong. I first heard about Taubes when i read his article for the New York Times entitled Is Sugar Toxic?, and i realized that he wasn’t just restating the obvious nutritional advice that we’ve all heard a thousand times, but was actually doing real research on the subject. So i sat up and paid attention, and i wasn’t too happy to learn what i did from his book. Meat is one of the best foods for us. Carbs, especially highly-processed ones like sugar and white flour, are almost certainly the worst. And while the book is very focused and sticks nearly exclusively to explaining the question raised by its title, it is quickly mentioned toward the end of the book (with no less convincing evidence) that carbs are probably also what cause many cancers, heart disease and diabetes. So even though i’m not a fat person, i feel like i should cut that crap out of my diet as much as possible for the rest of my life.

Have i started to do so? Absolutely not. Nathan and i have probably consumed more doughnuts since i read that book than ever before in our lives. But we’re thinking really hard about it.

French Women Don’t Get Fat was a different animal entirely. Guiliano cites nary a source nor study in her text, though she does refer to a whopping three individuals for whom her method has made a little bit of difference, in addition to her own fat-to-skinny tale. The basics of her philosophy are: enjoy what you eat as much as possible but eat moderate portions, especially of treats like bread (carbs), chocolate (carbs), desserts (carbs), fruit juices (carbs) and alcohol (carbs); walk a lot; and drink a lot of water.

Interestingly, there’s a lot of overlap between her approach to staying in shape and Taubes’s, despite the fact that Guiliano dismisses the low-carb approach to food as “ridiculous” and thinks that to practice that way of eating is to “risk heart disease” (not true). Everything that she says to eat in especially small amounts is a high-carb food (with the exception of meat). She and Taubes both advocate drinking a lot of water and eating plenty of greens. Both authors recommend eating plenty of soup as well, and limiting the intake of alcohol (especially beer, *sniff*) to a very low amount. Both advocate eating large meals and disdain snacking, and neither of them sees the point of intensive exercise as a method for weight loss when the result of it is almost always an increased appetite and calorie intake.

But from reading Why We Get Fat i can tell Guiliano that walking twenty minutes each day is not going to help anyone lose weight, either. It’s certainly not a bad idea and nothing ill is going to result from it, but it’s the diet that’s going to reduce a person’s waistline, not the evening stroll. She claims that those few extra burned calories “really add up,” but as Taubes points out, that can’t possibly be true unless everyone whose weight doesn’t fluctuate at all is consuming a very perfect number of calories every single day. Consider that if a person ate just twenty extra calories each day, it would take only a couple of decades for those calories to add up to an extra fifty pounds if the calorie balance imperative is true. Conversely, if a person were undereating by just twenty calories each day, she would steadily waste away over the years.

The body handles different types of calories in different ways. I’m not going to attempt to re-hash the science in Taubes’s book, because i didn’t take notes and i’d probably get it slightly wrong. But it made perfect sense to me. You should read the book, especially if you think what i’m saying is a bunch of bull.

And i think there’s a lot of truth, too, to the French idea that while Americans enjoy gorging on huge portions of food, we might actually enjoy it more if we stopped thinking of it as “sinful” and took the time to really think about and taste what we’re eating. I also thought Guiliano’s advice to cook a lot, avoid processed foods and try to eat a lot of local, seasonal produce was sage advice that would do a lot for our country. If only it were as cheap and easy to shop a farmer’s market as it is to hit up Subway, eh?


3 thoughts on “I Should Probably Be Fat

  1. Do you have a physical copy of “Why We Get Fat”? I would like to borrow it, especially after your multiple recommendations that everyone do so. 😉

    I think it’s very interesting, all of the different theories that exist. From my own experience, the biggest key has been moderation. As far as the low-carb thing goes, my personal theory is that the fewer carbs you eat, the more you will feel deprived, and you will take that out elsewhere. Feelings of deprivation are probably the biggest reasons diets fail. If you can’t consistently maintain something (“oh, I’ll just do this for a few weeks and drop a few pounds and then go back”) then you’re not going to get anywhere. It has to be a complete change.

    Twenty minutes of walking a day seems insufficient, but it’s better than nothing. Just going out there and doing SOMETHING helps. For people that currently don’t do any exercise, simply changing their eating habits isn’t going to do much. I’ve found the best weigh-in weeks I’ve had are the ones where I simultaneously am careful with my eating AND get some sort of physical activity in. You have to do both.

    Unfortunately, yes… booze is terrible for you, calorie (or Point) wise. But that doesn’t mean you have to give it up. Again: moderation. It’s not like you’re drinking a six pack a day, so a relatively average beer consumption probably isn’t going to hurt you.

    I don’t know. I’m not an expert. Obviously.


  2. Thanks for your input, Kelly. I don’t have a copy yet, but i’m going to buy at least one and loan it/them out generously.

    No one approach will work for all people. If you’ve found something that works for you, that’s all you need. My own diet is probably at least 50% carbs and i’m not struggling with weight yet, probably because of my genetics. But, as i said, it sounds like carbs cause other health problems, so i think it’s worth cutting back here and there.

    Both of these authors would totally agree with you that feelings of deprivation cause diets to fail. Guillano’s solution is essentially to eat yummier stuff—and lots and lots of fruits and veggies—and take the time to appreciate it. Taubes, on the other hand, says to go ahead and eat more meat if you feel deprived, but keep most everything else limited.

    I usually have about one beer per day. I used to drink wine instead about once a week, so i want to go back to that—especially now that it’s fall. Red wine is one of many things that i particularly enjoy in the fall. And i suspect that while Guillano turns her nose up at hard liquor, it might be the best thing to drink in terms of limiting carbs, as long as you don’t mix it with sugary crap.


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