Rethinking Thin The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

Gina Kolata




Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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A Quill Book Award Finalist In this eye-opening book, New York Times science writer Gina Kolata shows that our society’s obsession with dieting and weight loss is less about keeping trim and staying healthy than about money, power, trends, and impossible ideals. Rethinking Thin is at once an account of the place of diets in American society and a provocative critique of the weight-loss industry. Kolata’s account of four determined dieters’ progress through a study comparing the Atkins diet to a conventional low-calorie one becomes a broad tale of science and society, of social mores and social sanctions, and of politics and power.

Rethinking Thin asks whether words like willpower are really applicable when it comes to eating and body weight. It dramatizes what it feels like to spend a lifetime struggling with one’s weight and fantasizing about finally, at long last, getting thin. It tells the little-known story of the science of obesity and the history of diets and dieting—scientific and social phenomena that made some people rich and thin and left others fat and miserable. And it offers commonsense answers to questions about weight, eating habits, and obesity—giving us a better understanding of the weight that is right for our bodies.


Praise for Rethinking Thin

“Kolata is a first-rate author . . . Readers who care about the searing obesity debate being carried on every day across the United States will want to read Kolata’s book to find out.”—Steve Weinberg, The Seattle Times

“For most fat people, diets don’t work. That’s the bleak if not especially startling message of Rethinking Thin . . . Kolata’s colorful survey, with its Gibson Girls and Grahamites, is presented smoothly and economically.”—Daniel Akst, The Boston Globe

"The conclusions to which the reader of Gina Kolata's book will arrive are not good: once you are obese, there is no way back to your dream weight, at least not permanently. Whereas scientists are still figuring out how our body controls its weight, don't count on an effective and safe pharmacological cure to emerge soon. So, for the time being, we will remain fat. Obesity researchers studying food intake are in a unique situation: they are not only analyzing metabolism of cells and feeding behavior in animal models, but also serving as their own subjects. While studying the molecular underpinnings of appetite and adiposity during the day, they are battling the temptations of a hypercaloric dinner at night and staring at the increasing numbers on the scale the next morning. The science writer Gina Kolata has nicely illustrated these parallel worlds by introducing scientific quotes from obesity researchers along with their respective physiques . . . Another successful juxtaposition is parallel storylines: detailed chapters on the science of dieting and adiposity alternate with story chapters on subjects enrolling in a diet research study, hoping to cure their obesity. The story starts out with three clinical obesity researchers planning a study to determine whether a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet is the more efficient obesity cure. Kolata then introduces and repeatedly revisits study subjects throughout the course of the study. Their first-hand descriptions of social stigmatization or of their frustration after many attempts to lose weight help to avoid the dry tone often encountered in science writing. In parallel, Kolata takes us on an entertaining and highly educative journey through the history of dieting and the science of weight control. My favorite part may be the account of historic dieting frenzies, in which some of the more absurd ideas for beneficial food regimens are described and the illustrious characters proposing them to come to life . . . This book makes a perfect gift for junior scientists in the fields of metabolism, diabetes, cardiovascular, nutrition or endocrine research."—Matthias H. Tschöp, Nature Medicine

"An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight."—Dr. Jerome E. Groopman, author of The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness, and staff writer at The New Yorker

“When New York Times science writer Kolata took an unbiased look at society's war on fatness, she found that the spoils of the conflict fatten the pockets of a multibillion-dollar dieting industry, while most ever-hopeful yet hapless dieters lose only money. Why, then, do we still repeat a mantra—‘eat less and exercise more’—that has failed dieters for 2,000 years? Why, in diet study after diet study, do chubby participants consistently fail to reach their target weights? And why do the majority of dieters end up regaining most of their hard-lost weight, or regaining and then exceeding it? Following up on participants in a two-year clinical weight-loss study comparing the overall efficacies of the Atkins diet and a highly regarded low-calorie, low-fat diet opened Kolata's eyes to the plight of millions who can't seem to measure down to today's weight ideals. The experience led her to examine the millennia-old history of humanity's battle against the bulge. She interviewed several credentialed authorities, and she cites sound scientific evidence that calls in question the productiveness of common weight-loss methods. Her report reveals well-documented intelligence certain to annoy those segments of society and commerce that stubbornly cling to the ignis fatuus that all one needs to be thin is willpower.”—Donna Chavez, Booklist (starred review)

“Kolata has the ability to explain the science involved clearly and simply. She makes a powerful case for a dispassionate examination of the facts, divorced from the diet industry’s promises and hype.”—Susan Salpini, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia, School Library Journal

"New York Times reporter Kolata may be the best writer around covering the science of health. Here she offers an eye-opening book that questions all our received wisdom about why we get fat and the health hazards of those extra pounds. In chapters equally entertaining and dismaying, Kolata traces the history of dieting fads back to the 19th century; discusses our changing ideas about the ideal body (thinner and thinner); and, most importantly, explains how genetic and biochemical understanding has (at least among researchers) replaced the view of obesity as a lack of self-control. Most dramatic is Kolata's recounting of Jeff Friedman's groundbreaking discovery at Rockefeller University of the 'satiety factor,' a hormone he called leptin that tells our brains when we're full. The science alternates with moving chapters in which Kolata follows a group of people in a weight-loss study who are trying desperately to get thin—a quest that, as Kolata makes increasingly clear, is sadly futile. In her final, and perhaps most surprising, chapter, Kolata blasts the obesity industry—such as Jenny Craig and academic obesity research centers—those invested in promoting the idea that overweight is unhealthy, and diet and exercise are effective despite a raft of evidence to the contrary. This book will change your thinking about weight, whether you struggle with it or not."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Gina Kolata is a senior writer who covers medicine for The New York Times, and the author of five previous books, including Ultimate Fitness and the national bestseller Flu.  She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Read the full excerpt


  • Gina Kolata

  • Gina Kolata is a science writer for The New York Times and the author of five previous books, including Ultimate Fitness and the national bestseller Flu. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
  • Gina Kolata Andrew Brucker
    Gina Kolata