x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Required reading: the weight debate

A new study says it's OK to be overweight. So what's the truth about the so-called 'obesity epidemic'?

We all know that being fat is bad for you. But we may all be wrong, according to headlines generated by a scientific study published last week.

“Plump people live LONGER than their skinner counterparts!” ran one typical headline about the paper from the US-government sponsored National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their systematic review of evidence on weight and health found that people who are a little overweight have a six per cent reduced chance of death compared with those of a normal weight. And that runs counter to everything we thought we knew about giving in to that second helping of sponge cake.

So what’s the real truth about weight and health? Are we really facing an obesity epidemic and, if so, does it matter? Time to turn to the books.

For an opinionated overview, turn first to Zoe Harcombe’s The Obesity Epidemic (Columbus Books, Dh118). In the early 1970s, says Harcombe, around 2.5 per cent of adults in the UK were obese; today that figure stands at more than 25 per cent. Harcombe has strong, if controversial, views on how it happened: poor government advice on nutrition, she says, which labelled dietary fat the enemy when really it’s the carbohydrates in white bread and potatoes making us fat.

Meanwhile, in The Fattening of America (John Wiley & Sons, Dh118), the health economist Eric Finkelstein takes aim at the way free-market capitalism thrives on pushing us an ever-cheaper diet of high-calorie, low-nutrient convenience foods. It’s an argument reminiscent of the one made in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Penguin, Dh59), in which the US journalist traces the rise of American fast food to global dominance, with predictable consequences for our waistlines.

So if an over-fondness for pies has left you carrying a few extra pounds, what should you do? You could try Why We Get Fat, and What to Do About It (Anchor Books, Dh35) in which the nutrition writer Gary Taubes argues that you’ll never lose weight by following traditional diet advice. But the more philosophically inclined might prefer Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Polity Press, Dh94), in which historian Sander Gilman traces the origins of the modern obsession with, and moral panic around, bodyweight. “Fat” he says, is simply a historico-cultural value judgement. So go ahead, have that fifth biscuit.

* David Mattin