Nov. 16, 2007
Gina Kolata is an award-winning science and medicine reporter for the New York Times and the author of many books, including, “Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead”, “The Baby Doctors: Probing the Limits of Fetal Medicine“, “Sex in America”, the best-selling “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Search for the Virus that Caused It” , and “Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Health and Exercise.”
Kolata’s career in journalism began when she joined Science magazine in 1971, where she selected reviewers for manuscripts. She eventually became a writer and then senior writer. She also wrote for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including Science Magazine, Smithsonian, GQ and Ms. Magazine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and her master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Maryland. She studied molecular biology at M.I.T. in a Ph.D. program.
In Ultimate Fitness, you set out to discover the truth of the exercise industry and found much of fitness claims to be misleading. In your most recent work, Rethinking Thin, you blast those in the obesity industry, who promote the idea that overweight is unhealthy and diet and exercise to be effective. What prompted your interest in the study of diet, exercise and weight-loss?
I got interested in the exercise industry because I spend a lot of time exercising and at gyms and I kept hearing all sorts of things that did not seem to make a lot of scientific sense, like the “fat-burning zone.” I was interested in diet and weight loss because of my experience as a reporter. I have been writing about major research on weight and weight loss for decades, and these often involved discoveries that seemed pathbreaking. Yet the public, and the diet industry, kept on saying that all you have to do to lose weight is just eat less and exercise more.
What are some of the biggest core beliefs of dieting and weight-loss that you found to be incorrect?
The idea that anyone can be arbitrarily thin is at the top of the list. Then comes the idea that thinner people could easily be fat if they just let themselves go. Or the idea that people gain weight because they have emotional problems and are using food to fill an unmet need. Or that if you just walk for 20 minutes or so a day those unwanted pounds would melt away. Or that if you take junk foods out of the schools and re institute pe kids would not gain weight.
Is one’s weight a matter of genetics or lifestyle, or both?
It’s both. Genetics sets a weight range that is comfortable for you. But if you were living in a place where you could not get food, genetics would make no difference.
Are Americans getting fatter? Is there really an epidemic of obesity and especially, childhood obesity?
Americans on average have gotten heavier over the years, but the average increase is 5 to 7 pounds. It’s greater at the high end of the weight range. Women are no heavier today than they were in the 1990′s.
At the conclusion of Rethinking Thin, you cite that, in some societies, obesity used to be considered a sign of health. Why has fat transformed from something to be revered to something now reviled?
All anyone can do is speculate. Some social scientists think it is a social class thing – poorer people tend to be fatter. When food was expensive, the wealthy were fatter.
Numerous studies have emerged in the past several years showing health benefits of fat in findings that have now become known as the “obesity paradox.” Yet, these studies often get little to no media playtime, while alarmist studies purporting to show the health hazards of fat get top billing. Why are the former ignored or attacked, and the latter sensationalized?
The health benefit studies get a lot of publicity, but I agree that they seem to be taken less seriously by the public than the alarmist stories. You are as qualified as I am to figure out why. It probably has a lot to do with weight and social class and a sort of societal view that people who are fatter than fashion dictates are self indulgent and deserving of disdain.
It has been suggested that yo-yo dieting poses more of a health risk for dieters, than had they not lost the weight at all. Based on your research, do you agree or disagree?
I am not familiar with convincing, rigorous research that answers this question.
In Rethinking Thin, you contend that the diet industry often only succeeds in fattening the pocketbooks of a multi-billion dieting industry, while hopeful dieters lose only money. Why then do so many Americans continue to buy in to the thin American dream?
In my book, I discuss the work of psychologists who asked why people repeatedly diet when ever time they regain the weight. They concluded that there is a reward to dieting – at first, when the weight falls off, people feel great, in control, about to embark on a new phase of their lives. Then, when it comes back, they blame themselves for having been weak or given in to temptation. When a new diet comes around, they are ready to try again, and once again get that initial euphoria.
That may be part of it.
Another part may be the persistent messages from doctors, the media, friends and family that excess weight is unhealthy and unattractive and that all it takes to lose weight is a little bit of exercise and will power.
Despite the fact that science does not seem to back their claims, obesity researchers continue to promote obesity as a major health risk. Why has obesity become the nation’s whipping boy?
I go into this a lot in my book, but there is no short or easy answer.
At the conclusion of Rethinking Thin, you write that you see a major paradigm shift coming soon about diets that will radically change how we think about weight-loss; research, you say, that is “starting to open doors.” Yet, many in the fat acceptance movement see these same doors continuously slammed shut. Are you optimistic about the direction obesity-related research is taking?
I think the research will be revealing more and more about how and why weight is controlled. That does not necessarily mean that there will be a wonder drug that will allow people to weigh whatever they want. It may be that there are so many controls on weight that if you disable one, another will take over. And that makes sense – it is so important for survival to have some fat on your body that the brain may well have evolved lots of overlapping controls. But maybe someday society will accept what science is finding and not demand that everyone meet weight standards that are only achievable by the very few.