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Serious Reads: Weighing In, by Julie Guthman

20111108-weighingincover.jpgObesity has reached epidemic proportions. It plagues inner-city neighborhoods as well as rural agrarian communities. It's caused by fast food that's too cheap, and organic yuppie grocery stores that are too expensive. It's treatable and preventable—if only we would stop eating so much.

At least, that's what we've always been told.

Julie Guthman, a well-known food scholar, has just released a new book that turns all of these assumptions on their heads. In Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, she addresses the issue of obesity with new eyes. She argues that our current accepted knowledge about obesity is incomplete, and that better health starts with asking better questions about our food system and food culture.

Guthman first takes a hard look at the discourse surrounding obesity and the overweight in the U.S. Using data collected from students in a class on obesity politics, combined with interviews with men and women in several communities, she examines the way in which we describe the cause and consequence of weight gain. She posits that our cultural emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities has led to a culture of victim blaming, in which overweight individuals are punished for not taking proper care of themselves.

Our accepted understanding of weight gain is inextricably tied to our cultural conception that being overweight is a symptom of laziness or irresponsibility. The accepted scientific opinion is that you gain weight when you take in more calories than you burn, and lose weight when you burn more calories than you eat. By this hypothesis, it seems natural to assume that those who gain weight might be less conscious of calories and healthfulness of what they're eating. But Guthman has a serious bone to pick with this dominant belief system.

She first points to the limited data that indicates a significant enough increase in the number of calories consumed in the last 30 years to account for twice as many obese adults in the U.S. since 1980. Additionally, there is mixed evidence that caloric intake plays such a large role in controlling weight. Haven't you or a friend struggled endlessly with a calorie-restricted diet? We assume that our understanding of weight gain is correct because it makes logical sense. Guthman has other ideas about why obesity rates are spiking.

One of her primary targets is environmental obesogens, or chemicals that proliferate our food, water, and air supply that could disrupt our hormonal balance and cause us to store fat. She also highlights structural inequalities that make it impossible for some overweight people to "choose" the better food option, which may be more expensive or not available locally. And she discusses the misdirection of public health efforts that include making cities more walkable and parks cleaner, arguing that these initiatives do not address the root cultural and environmental issues at hand.

This brief synopsis doesn't even begin to cover the nuance of the controversial assertions that Guthman makes in this new book. This is definitely an academic text, complete with many citations and language that takes a while to slog through. But Guthman's tone is friendly and sincere, and she takes time to explain any jargon very thoroughly. If you have any interest in the causes of obesity, our societal response to the "obesity epidemic," the role of capitalism in our food system, or want to be challenged with a book that goes against everything the media has told you about weight gain—this will be a rewarding read.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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