Fat Politics, The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic


Oliver, J. Eric


2006 by Oxford Universty Press Inc. New York, N.Y.

J Eric Oliver is a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He acknowledges Paul Campos and sounds a lot like Paul Campos who wrote a jacket blurb for Fat Politics. I can't argue with a lot of what J Eric Oliver or Paul Campos say because they sound a lot like me. They have lots of good references to share too. But these authors have an allergy to admitting that their morass of conflicting information doesn't lead anywhere.

Even though there is no message that hangs together, we can try to paraphrase the tone of a message, with quotes from the introduction. The "...CDC report that 400,00 Americans died of obesity..." is wrong. p3. "..but we do not have any evidence that losing weight makes us any healthier." p4. (Actually that's sort of true. There wasn't any such evidence at the time of writing of Fat Politics but there is now.) The "Obesity Epidemic" arises from a conspiracy of "America's public health establishment" and "cultural biases." p5. "The real culprit behind our increasing weight is snacking..." p9. "..snacks, cars and television" p10. "botched gastric bypass" p11 "health professionals, drug companies, government and diet industry." p12 etc....

Chapter 1 says that overrated rumors of epidemic obesity is a conspiracy of corporations who sell weight loss products (that are dangerous and don't work), and researchers who depend on government dollars to keep researching. So these rumors are also pushed by the government and the press who are fools of those corporations and scientists.

The problem with chapters 2, 3 and 4 is that whether or not we should label obesity a disease, whether or not there's anything we could or should do about it, whether or not we are hoodwinked by social conventions, it is an incontrovertible fact that we are fatter now than ever before. Maybe it's an epidemic.

Chapter 5 is about genes. It is best sumerized by the statement, "Asking someone in this state to exercise 'self control' is like asking someone who has been awake for three days not to sleep." p112 That quote is worth the price of admission. However, in the part of chapter 5 subheaded "Are all calories created equal?" Mr Oliver is confused and wrong.

Chapter 6 posits the wrong theory that the problem is snacking. Whoops. Wait a minute. So we're not less healthy because we're fatter and we're not fatter because of how we eat - we're just sicker because of how we eat. Well maybe, but snacking - grazing - is actually better for "cholesterol, blood pressure and general metabolism" p141 than big meals. Mr Oliver is just wrong about this.

Chapter 7 says that we don't exercise because of all the labor saving in modern life.. yada, yada, yada, and that exercise is very good for your health, but exercise has nothing to do with obesity, except for the Amish.

Chapter 8 is full of sound and fury about the government and the food industry. But we know from all he's said up to now that it doesn't matter, right? He's beginning to sound like maybe it does somehow.

Finally in chapter 9 we see a statement that is straightforwardly contrary to all he's said before, "Few Americans want to be fat, yet we continue to gain weight, largely because the minute benefits of tasty snack foods and refreshing sodas are simply too difficult to resist."

So what's the message of Fat Politics? It's something lofty and definitive but I don't understand it. It might be "..the best way to get over our weight problem is to stop worrying so much about our weight." p189 Or it's, "The best way we can begin to solve the obesity epidemic is not by trying to get everyone to lose weight, but by no longer making weight a subject of official concern."

Another exception to the third feature of everybody's take on obesity is that explained by Lee M Kaplan MD at the recent Obesity Summit 2007, in Cleveland. Dr. Kaplan calls it the 6th brake solution. The 6th brake solution to obesity goes like this:

Apparently (I'm not a mechanic) your car has 9 brakes. Each wheel has a break, then there is a back-up system for each wheel and then there is the hand brake. This is a good idea since being able to stop the car is important. If one or two of these brakes fail you have no problem. It is not until 6 brakes fail that you begin to have trouble stopping the car.

By analogy, energy storage, the job of fat in your body, is so vital that there are powerful and redundant systems to accomplish it. The cure of obesity will have to involve knocking out multiple brakes, that is, multiple physiological resistances to weight loss. So the cure will not be one pill or one simple thing. It will be more like the treatments of type 2 diabetes and hypertension, other examples of 6th brake solutions. Treatment of obesity will involve multiple life style changes and multiple pills aimed at different parts of the problem.

In Fat Science we also struggle with an overwhelming abundance of the scientific evidence. We also gladly point out how and why almost everybody is all wrong when they talk about it. But I do not have a simple solution. I also do not believe that Dr Kaplan's approach will ultimately have to be. Instead I state that there is a simple solution, a magic pill, and point out some of it's probable features. But I do not know what it is. It does not exist yet.