Secrets of Weight Loss Revealed!

A little is easy, a lot is hard, and results may vary.

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting, by Gina Kolata, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 257 pages, $24

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, by Brian Wansink, New York: Bantam Books, 276 pages, $25

Gina Kolata says losing weight is nearly impossible. Brian Wansink says it’s easy. But they don’t really contradict each other, because they’re talking about different kinds of weight loss.
Although their new books offer very different messages for dieters, Kolata and Wansink share a suspicion of collectivist responses to the “obesity epidemic.” Both writers are intensely interested in the question of why people weigh as much as they do, but they do not leap from research findings to policy prescriptions aimed at making us thinner by restricting our choices. At a time when almost every discussion of weight in America seems to end with a list of things the government should do about it, their restraint is commendable.

In Rethinking Thin, Kolata, a veteran New York Times science reporter, focuses on a group of obese people enrolled in a University of Pennsylvania diet study. They exhibit the usual pattern of initial success followed by setbacks, typically ending up about as fat as they were to begin with. She uses these case studies to illustrate her general point that “very few people lose substantial amounts of weight and keep it off” because genetic factors play a large role in determining how much a given person will weigh as an adult.

By contrast, in Mindless Eating, Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University who has studied consumers’ food-related decisions for decades, focuses on the sort of gradual, modest weight loss that Kolata concedes is achievable. Declaring that “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on,” he urges small changes in everyday behavior that over the course of a year can result in a weight loss of 10 to 25 pounds. His book will not be much help to people like the research subjects Kolata interviews, who generally want to lose 50 to 100 pounds.

Kolata’s message, as it pertains to the very fat, is mostly discouraging, while Wansink’s, which is addressed mainly to the somewhat overweight, is relentlessly upbeat. But both distinguish themselves from the “obesity epidemic” doomsayers by casting a skeptical eye on efforts to make Americans thinner through social engineering. They show that it’s possible to discuss the issue of weight without laying out a Plan of Action that treats us all as an undifferentiated blob of blubber.

Kolata, whose reporting on subjects ranging from breast implants to pesticide residues has been admirably resistant to the health scare du jour, questions the conventional wisdom that weighing “too much” is unhealthy. Like other dissenters from the War on Fat, such as University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos and University of Chicago political scientist Eric Oliver (see “Lay Off the Fatties!,” November 2006), she tells fat people they will probably stay that way but simultaneously reassures them that the medical implications are not as dire as they’ve heard.

Many of the health risks associated with obesity may be due to the poor diets and sedentary habits associated with fatness rather than the extra pounds per se. Kolata notes that it’s unclear whether exceeding the government’s recommended weight range is inherently hazardous or whether fat people who become thinner thereby become healthier. Yet scientists who point out such inconvenient facts can expect to be pilloried for failing to toe the party line. Kolata describes the dismay of two researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Katherine Flegal and David Williamson, at the anger they provoked from their colleagues by suggesting that the death toll the government had attributed to excessive weight was greatly exaggerated.

In a 2005 study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association, Flegal, Williamson, and two other researchers reported that people the government considers “overweight” have lower mortality rates than people with supposedly “healthy” weights. They were criticized not so much for being wrong as for being unhelpful. “Your patients likely did not read the original article,” said an editorial in the journal Obesity Management, “but they did likely hear about it in the news and the message they got was not to worry so much about overweight and obesity. I do not think this is the message you want them to have.” That response was typical, Flegal tells Kolata: “Everyone thinks they already know the answer.…All these people who just know weight loss is good for you. It’s just taken for granted regardless of the evidence.”

So is the feasibility of major, permanent weight loss, Kolata argues, for the most part persuasively. Her litany of diet fads, ranging from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 bestseller The Physiology of Taste to The Atkins Diet Revolution, The Zone, and The South Beach Diet, shows that hope springs eternal in the plump torso, a point confirmed by her often poignant personal histories of dieters. A fat man who, like most of the subjects in the University of Pennsylvania study, has tried many different diets, losing and regaining hundreds of pounds, tells her: “In your brain, you say, ‘I have 100 percent free will. I have total control over what I eat.’ But in the experience of my life, in the experience of my day, in the experiences that have been thrust upon me, I don’t have that control.”

Kolata’s discussion of obesity research suggests that false hope is not limited to people trying to lose weight. Scientists too are perpetually reaching for a weight loss key that always seems just beyond their fingertips: the right diet, the right drug, the right hormone.

Kolata’s main explanation for the failure of these efforts is that people are genetically programmed for a certain weight range, which varies widely from one individual to another. Twin studies indicate that genetic differences account for something like 70 percent of variation in weight. “The body’s metabolism speeds up or slows down to keep weight within a narrow range” of “20 to 30 pounds,” Kolata writes. While losing 20 or 30 pounds would count as success for most Americans whom the government considers overweight, it would be just a start for the study subjects on whom Kolata focuses.

The idea of predetermined weight ranges is consistent with much everyday experience: People tend to return to a particular weight after gaining a few pounds from holiday overeating, for example, or after losing pounds during an illness. It also jibes with the complaints of people who say they easily gain weight while friends can eat whatever they want and stay thin.

Kolata describes research that backs up these anecdotes, including experiments showing the difficulty that thin people have in gaining weight as well as the difficulty that fat people have in losing it. In both cases, the weight tends to spring back after the experiment is over. One reason: Fat people have more fat cells than thin people, and when they lose weight the cells don’t disappear; they just get smaller. Likewise, thin people have fewer fat cells, and when they gain weight the cells don’t multiply; they just expand. Partly because of the signals sent by these fat cells, but also because of how those signals are conveyed to and interpreted by the brain, obese people do not feel satiated as soon as thin people do.

There is also evidence that their hunger is more intense. Kolata notes that the food-obsessed, sneaky, guilt-ridden behavior of fat people on diets is similar to the behavior of thin experimental subjects who are deliberately underfed. “A lot of thin people think that because they can skip a meal and feel a bit hungry, everyone can do the same,” one obesity researcher tells her. “They assume the sensation of hunger is the same for everyone.” They’re wrong, says Kolata: “Fat people are fat because their drive to eat is very different from the drive in thin people.”

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  • Penry||

    Just wondering - how can you talk about fat without mentioning Gary Taubes' recent book?

  • ||

    An additional factor to the current improve in the occurrence of obesity may be that individuals possess begun in order to lose the actual powers associated with self-control through which they had once regulated their own body dumbbells with higher good results; past generations, formed beneath the actual back heel of an authoritarian Quick weight loss culture, would naturally have been much more practiced in restraining their own desires.

  • ||

    Ah ... another 200+ post about obesity, with the chorus of collectivists lurking here arguing that government should "Do Something for Teh Childrun" -- and the handful of libertarians saying, gee, maybe it's just barely possible that individuals, acting entirely on their own, could get a little more exercise each day, and eat a few hundred less calories each day, and be a way, way more content with their actual weight instead of what the government's Benign Push for That Gaunt Concentration Camp Healthy Look would dictate.

    * Wipes off sweat from brow from narrow brush with early Godwinization. *

  • ||

    One size fits all.

    Eee -qual -lize!!

  • ||

    I haven't read the books, but it seems odd to me that we all agree about diet and exercise being effective at up front weight loss but then saying that genetic factors make you fat again. Really? You keep your portions down, you exercise, and your genetics make you fat again?

    Isn't the genetic component here really reflected as a disposition toward food and activity? Do we really want to call that a genetic factor?

  • R C Dean||

    Isn't the genetic component here really reflected as a disposition toward food and activity?

    It may be that genetics influences your metabolic set points. It seems to me that some people have engines that naturally idle faster, allowing them to weight less even if they eat more/exercise less than other folks.

  • ||


    That is almost certainly the case, but the point remains that there is a level of eating and exercise that is right given your metabolism. It is nothing but an act of will to get there. If you make other choices, that is entirely up to you, but I hate the message that it's out of your hands.

  • M||

    If I lost six pounds, as my doctor has advised me to do, I would achieve the magical BMI of 24.9, giving me a "healthy" weight. But if I fail to do so, I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad, since two-thirds of American adults weigh more than the government thinks they should.

    This logic escapes me. That what "the government" thinks anyone should weigh would ever enter into a discussion at a magazine called "reason"...

    Drink! Eat!

    Also, dieters should not turn for inspiration to Brillat-Savarin.

    For encouragement in dining well, do not miss MFK Fisher's The Art of Eating. It is teh classy.

  • Elson Silva, PhD||

    Free Fruits on Public Areas to Curb Spreading Obesity

    Fruits are low in calories and highly nutritional already grown on public places at increasing ratios to face obesity trends. Tree climbing also can be a body exercise for kids harvesting fruits.

    Fruits have around four times more water content than cookies and easily satisfy hunger taking less energy. Refrigerators full of fruits easily beat junkies.

    In Brazil we are increasing fruit trees in the public areas changing the country to a large tropical orchard. Then, sidewalks, squares, parks, roadsides will be plenty of free fruits bearing appropriate food to fight spreading obesity. Free fruits are protected from the power of the economic system pursuing profitability.

    Other countries are invited to join us on a fight against global obesity toward a Public Fructification. Brazil intends to become a developed country without common problems of a superpower.

    We intend the rural area to conquer public areas making it full of fruits.

    Even carnivores can be convinced to eat more fruits why not humans?

  • dr_dog||

    And when the public spaces in Brazil are full of sugar-thirsty wasps and street urchins camouflaged in fruit trees - I will only laugh.

  • R C Dean||

    We intend the rural area to conquer public areas making it full of fruits.

    There's a joke in here somewhere about San Francisco and the Central Valley, I just know there is.

  • Rhywun||

    Fructify, biotch!

  • ||

    I welcome Brazil's new hypoglycemic overlords. Aren't the calories in fruit about 100% from sugar? I'm not sure 20 apples a day would in fact keep the doctor away.

  • ||

    Free Fruits on Public Areas to Curb Spreading Obesity

    Putting Back the Cheetos™ and Kool-Aid™ and Instead Buying Fruits and Veggies.

    Nah, crazy talk.

    Long ago, I worked in a grocery store in a poor neighborhood and the eating habits on display (looking at their purchases and the size of the fruit punch section compared to the milk section) were atrocious.

    It wasn't for a lack of choice in healthy foods, but a lack of desire by the customers in buying them. Oh, the Faustian choices made at the register when the total was more than they had in cash and something needed to go back. The Sunny-D and pork rinds were never the first choice.

    The store had lot's and lot's o' free pamplets about healthy eating available. They were rarely needing to be refilled.

  • RRC||

    How can this article be taken seriously? As if the laws of thermodynamics are dependent on genetics.

  • Eric Dondero||

    Hay guyz. Speaking of fat fucks, come check out my highly masturbatory political site!

  • ||

    I lost about 50 lbs eight years ago, and have kept it off. Unfortuntately, I did it the old fashioned way.

    1: Exercise. I am in the gym six days on a "normal" week, half cardio and half weight training. I try not to let it fall below four days even on vacation, holidays, or illness.

    2: Better diet. 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, whole grains, oatmeal for breakfast, etc. My favorite trick is to eat vegetables while making dinner.

    3: Keeping junk food out of my apartment. If it ain't there, I am not tempted.

    4: Having the will-power to pass on unnecessary treats. Just because your co-worker brings donuts to the office doesn't mean you need to eat one.

    There really is no secret trick. Eat less exercise more is all it boils down to.
    There are days where I wonder if it is worth the sacrifice, but on the whole it is...even if it doesn't really make me live much longer.

  • LarryA||

    Even if you have no interest in following Wansink's advice, the book is worth reading for his breezy, entertaining accounts of Candid Camera-ready studies in which people stuff themselves with stale popcorn because it's in a big container,

    Dang. We got one of those huge containers of popcorn at my wife's office Christmas party. It's still on the diningroom table.

    Be right back.

    Fruits are low in calories and highly nutritional already grown on public places at increasing ratios to face obesity trends. Tree climbing also can be a body exercise for kids harvesting fruits. In Brazil we are increasing fruit trees in the public areas changing the country to a large tropical orchard.

    If the fruit is up in trees who is more likely to eat it, the skinny kid who can climb easily, or the fat kid who can't?

    Unintended consequences department.

  • ||

    If the fruit is up in trees who is more likely to eat it, the skinny kid who can climb easily, or the fat kid who can't?

    I think what we have here is marvelous opportunity for skinny kid entrepreneurship.

  • ||

    See, what we really need to do is cut back on the farm subsidies and import tariffs so that healthier food is less expensive compared to the cheap, unhealthy stuff. Yes, the "obesity crisis" is the government's doing, at least in part.

  • R C Dean||

    See, what we really need to do is cut back on the farm subsidies and import tariffs so that healthier food is less expensive compared to the cheap, unhealthy stuff.

    Its already cheaper, by and large. The unhealthy stuff is processed, and you generally pay more per serving for processed meals than for meals where you buy the ingredients fresh and make it yourself.

    The subsidies apply at the raw materials stage. The unhealthy stuff and the health stuff generally uses the same raw materials, except for the additives in the processed junk, which generally aren't subsidized, AFAIK.

  • ||

    BMI is calculated using the square of height. Yet mass increases by the cube of height, proportionally. Some part of the increasing BMI can be attributed to a taller population.

  • Edward||


  • ^||

    Is that the subjunctive?

  • David Govett||

    The Diagnosis Diet works every time. When a doctor tells you to lose weight or die soon, the shock will force you to change.

  • ||

    Chad is right. In one year I gradually lost 35 pounds just by taking a vigorous 30 minute walk each morning, by an occasional long bike ride, by eliminating soft drinks, and by replacing snacks like potato chips with vegetables, for example carrots. Other than that, I eat whatever I want whenever I want, just in smaller portions. I do seem to have much less interest now in eating between meals than I used to, but a nice meal every once in awhile at a top French restaurant is not off limits. I've kept the weight off for nearly three years. Losing weight gradually and faithfully did the trick for me. I'll never get down to the weight I had when I ran cross-country in college, but I do feel pretty healthy these days for my age. I am prepared to believe that my weight is more a function of genetics than life style, but there's surely no harm in giving the DNA a helping hand.

  • Barry Krakow MD||

    It is remarkable how many books, fads, and diets attempt to produce sustainable weight loss programs without focusing much if any time on two critical factors that add fuel to this epidemic that stretches across much of western civilization.

    1. Sleep Disorders, notably sleep-disordered breathing, are highly prevalent in obesity, and unquestionably serve as a barrier to effective weight loss. This role is likely to prove complex involving hormonal changes on the leptin/grhelin axis as well as subtle and not so subtle cognitive impairments that undermine the obese patient's capacity to rationally work their programs.

    2. Emotional processing, that is, the ability to effectively work through a series of emotional states, is largely ignored in obesity research. Yet, in less than 30 minutes of dialogue with virtually any obese patient, we discover that the individual is clearly eating to smother unpleasant emotions instead of dealing with them directly.

    Neither of these factors represent panaceas, but they are missing links routinely ignored in obesity research, and they explain in part why these program routinely fail.

    Sleep on it!

  • M. Simon||

    If the government would subsidize gastric bypass surgery we could fix this durn overweight problem.

  • ||

    No matter how much it is denied, the population IS fatter today. Grade school class photos prove it.
    I suspect that if people are raised in a fattogenic way, it's going to stick with them through life - animals are adaptable like that.
    One major cause is probably TV watching: not just because it increases consumption of bad food, but because it correlates with less sleep - and sleeping less changes the body's hormones in such a way as to increase weight.

  • ||

    Just wondering - how can you talk about fat without mentioning Gary Taubes' recent book?

    No kidding.

    Kolata doesn't exactly shine in that book either.

    Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

    Starred Review. Taubes's eye-opening challenge to widely accepted ideas on nutrition and weight loss is as provocative as was his 2001 NewYork Times Magazine article, What if It's All a Big Fat Lie? Taubes (Bad Science), a writer for Science magazine, begins by showing how public health data has been misinterpreted to mark dietary fat and cholesterol as the primary causes of coronary heart disease. Deeper examination, he says, shows that heart disease and other diseases of civilization appear to result from increased consumption of refined carbohydrates: sugar, white flour and white rice.

    From the Publisher's Weekly blurb at the link. Much more there.

  • Christine||

    Yes, sugar and grains are responsible for a lot of the problem, as is the fact that much of the food consumed is deficient in minerals and other nutrients, keeping people hungry for more. Also people don't get enough digestive enzymes to properly make use of the nutrition in the foods they consume, leading to digestive problems such as "acid reflux". Toxins in the environment and in the foods consumed also contribute to weight gain, as the body produces fat cells to protect vital organs. The solution, missing from conventional dieting schemes, is nutritional cleansing to help the bodies natural mechanism for eliminating impurities. Isagenix is the only weight-loss/nutritional system that addresses all the relevant concerns, helping people lose even hundreds of pounds they gave up hope of being able to lose. The products are packed with nutritional enzymes and probiotics to help the digestive process work efficiently and minerals, protein and amino acids to ensure optimal nutrition. There is nothing else out there that even comes close in terms of results.
    Go here now to find out what I'm talking about:

  • daveylee||

    Chad and Gobsmacker seem to have found their weight loss niche in the basic tenets of the Weight Watchers program.

    It's all about portion reduction and activity increase folks. That's it! There are no foods that are off limits. Just eat what you want in a "reasonable" portion size (which rarely, if ever, exist at most mainstream restaurants). If your day is going to include a richer or larger meal, then make sure you get more activity that day.

    Move 30 minutes a day and you'd be surprised at how easy it is to lose or maintain your weight. If 30 minutes is more than you can make time for, then do 15 minutes a couple times a day. And all it needs to be is a reasonably brisk walk, or even a round of golf (walked, of course). For those of the video game generation who seem to be the target of the governmental obesity claims, if you have a Nintendo Wii, you can find games out there that will give you a plenty good workout, and are fun as well.

    Leave the frickin' books at the book store, and just eat less and move more. I started out 70 pounds over my BMI (Gov't rating can kiss my ass. There's no freakin way I'm ever going to weigh 167 lbs anymore) max in October. I've lost 30 pounds in 10 weeks since I decided I didn't want to be a fat ass anymore. And if my lazy ass can do it, then there should be hope for the rest of the world.

  • ||

    The comment about Huckabee is interesting. Recent investigations are suggesting that Huckabee actually lost his weight by gastric bypass surgery. See this link:

  • I.M.||

    Another contributor to the recent increase in the incidence of obesity might be that people have begun to lose the powers of self-control by which they had once regulated their body weights with greater success; past generations, formed under the heel of an authoritarian culture, would naturally have been far more practiced in restraining their desires.

    Is liberty a burden too heavy for the many to bear?

  • ||

    It's interesting watching movies from the 80s or earlier and noting how skinny everyone looked. Coulda been the clothing fashions too.

  • Matthew Gillum||

    Ms. Kolata needs to review her thermodynamics. While it's reasonable to say that there may be substantial inter-individual differences in appetite, even the individuals most susceptible to obesity based on their genotypes cannot stay fat without excessive caloric intake relative to their metabolic rate. A person who stays chunky without food would be a perpetual motion machine, which the physicists tell me are impossible.

  • EinRand||

    For me - it was a lack of adequate vitamin D3.
    4k I.U. D3 vs. RDA of 400.

    205.4 lbs to 179.2 in 63 days
    1200 to 1600 calories per day and weightlifting

    A number of researchers at these sites make a rationally scientific argument for the connection between a lack of Cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) and a number of disease states. They are not selling anything. A 100 count bottle of 2k I.U. D3 costs only $7., and data are linked to published peer reviewed studies.

    Average intake from summer sun exposure in twenty minutes is 10k to 50k before caucasion skin begins to tan.
    Obesity is only one of a number of reasons to investigate this topic, cancer and depression being for me two of the most important ones.

    I'm not suggesting it's the magic bullet, only that calorie resticiton and exercise are exponentially easier in the presence of adequate nutrition.

  • David Haskell||

    Why no mention of the US Govt's annual multi-billion dollar spend-up supporting corporate farms growing anything BUT fruits and vegetables? Sorry -- I agree that government may not have the tools (smarts?) to solve the obesity problem but WE the PEOPLE need to make sure our government stops contributing to the problem. Let's face it, if the billion dollar farm subsidies were given to local communities to set-up community gardens to provide people with the wherewithal to grow their own; would we still have this obesity epidemic? No. If we stopped fast food junk-pushers from saturating our children's minds with fat and TV commercials would it be different. So enough of this "it all about genetics" non-sense.......

  • ||

    Hey there! Great post so far. However, I think you can learn more about weight loss and getting optimum low body fat by visiting this website!

    It includes fitness tips, and teaches you getting in shape. Weight loss should not be done using extreme diets or related things like that! Getting in shape should be much easier. Find a fitness buddy and guide each other the path down low body fat today!

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  • sudeki||

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    Thank u

  • Weight Loss Blog||

    that’s nice

  • Suan - A Slimmer U||

    Using a diet journal is a great way to track everything you eat everyday. People who use a log or journal with their diet lose TWICE as much weight,

  • Chris||

    It's not impossible, I am myself a living example of being thin , after being obese for so many yrs....

    You need determination more than anything else

  • weight loss pictures||

    thanks for the stories really Inspiring

  • ||

    Thank you for sharing this. I have been using Acomplia as part of my weight loss program and purchased it online ( and it is really effective.

  • movie reviews and screenplay||

    Woww...very inspiring..

  • food recipes||

    This article give inspiration to everybody. Like me, get inspiration in weight loss after read this article..thank you so much

  • job hunting skills||

    this is really inspiring story. much people don't care about weight loss. But, i am sure if they read your article, they will be care

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  • ||

    Want to have the appearance of losing wt in just 1 minute a day? Wear a girdle. However, to do it right for the long run, eat like your grandmother...unless she was fat.

  • ||

    its really hard for me on weekends when my friends go out for cocktails but lately I have found a great source for low calorie drinks, voli!! its so great!


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