Serious Reads »

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: The Weight of the Nation, by John Hoffman and Judith A. Salerno

HBO recently released a four-part documentary entitled The Weight of the Nation: To Win, We Have to Lose. The documentary, which you can stream online for free at the HBO website, discusses the causes of America's obesity crisis and provides tips for losing excess weight. This review is of the documentary's accompanying book, of the same name, written by John Hoffman and Judith A. Salerno.

I must admit that my expectations were rather low for this combined documentary/book project. In attempting to cover all aspects of the rising obesity rate and its consequences, wouldn't the authors be forced to paint obesity in broad strokes? I anticipated subtly-disguised jabs at the poor willpower of overweight folks, and flippant recommendations to simply eat less and watch the pounds melt away.

In reality, this book was surprisingly nuanced given its relatively slim binding. It provides a comprehensive enough look at how processed and fast foods came to dominate our national diet, and details the corporate power that maintains the status quo of advertising and unhealthy additives. And the authors directly address the ill-conceived notion that overweight is inherently linked to lack of willpower.

Many pages are dedicated to explaining how our biochemistry makes weight gain easy and weight loss difficult. Essentially, the book describes the ways in which our bodies are more complicated than a simple caloric formula—our "set weight" changes as we put on pounds, which in turn increases our metabolism and encourages our bodies to want more food. This scientific discussion adds some depth to the dieting discourse, and provides encouragement to those who might feel as though they are the only ones struggling to lose weight and keep it off.

The book does also provide dietary and lifestyle recommendations, which reminded me very much of Marion Nestle's Why Calories Count. Essentially, the experts recommend that we exercise more—but exercise can be done in short snippets throughout the day, rather than in two hours at the gym. And we should eat less—eliminate processed foods, be aware of your metabolic system and its needs, and ignore hunger pains from time to time. Generally, these recommendations are adaptable for many lifestyles, and the authors' encouraging tones make lifestyle changes seem achievable.

My one critique of this book is somewhat minor, but are also seemingly pervasive in obesity literature and study. Though the book provides many of personal, in-depth anecdotes from folks who have lost a significant amount of weight, there is less conversation around why we are becoming fat in the first place. Sure, there are lots of statistics related to national increases in processed food availability, the decline of school lunches, and the pervasiveness of food advertising. But what emotional or environmental factors cause individuals and communities to start gaining weight? What are the root causes beyond simply purchasing and consuming too much fast food? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in the documentary, which I hope to curl up with this weekend. You can stream the movie and find more information here.

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

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