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‘Dietland’: A Fat Heroine, And The Politics Of Weight

By Jean Fain

The heroine is the news in “Dietland,” the new novel by Sarai Walker. That’s because she’s got the rarest of qualities in a female protagonist: She’s fat.

Also, she has next to no sense of self, and expects to remain selfless until she can afford weight-loss surgery and find her true self as a thin person. In the meantime, Plum Kettle, our heroine, works as a ghostwriter for the slender, glamorous and self-absorbed editor of a teen magazine called Daisy Chain. In short, Plum’s got no life of her own.

Plum’s transformation from fat girl to full-bodied rebel with a cause is the narrative arc of Walker’s provocative and insightful book. Like “Alice in Wonderland,” Plum’s sense of self gets turned on its head by a cast of oddball characters, from the daughter of a famous diet guru and her feminist cohort to a murderous terrorist cell of women avenging crimes against women. When the daughter of the diet guru offers Plum $20,000 to postpone her surgery and confront the real costs of beauty, the plot and subplot blend and thicken.

dietlandDespite the rave reviews from my inner circle and the world at large, I didn’t expect to be drawn in by the writing. But, truth be told, it’s fresh, playful and sometimes hilarious: The parody of the diet industry is spot on. I also didn’t expect to be touched by the rejection and humiliation the 300+ pound Plum encounters along the way to finding herself.

Most unexpected of all: I kind of looked forward to spending my evenings with a fictional someone desperately seeking weight loss. Generally, if I’m desperate for anything at the end of the day with clients (I’m a therapist specializing in eating disorders and food issues), it’s non-diet-related downtime.

I can’t say I always loved reading “Dietland.” Violence, even when served as Walker serves it — with sarcasm and panache — isn’t my cup of tea. I also had trouble swallowing the meanness of the male characters, and the complete self-acceptance of the female ones. And yet, my curiosity kept me turning all 307 pages. I wanted to know if Plum would live more happily ever after. Plus, I wanted to discuss the book with members of my mindful eating support group. (“Dietland” is the group’s first unofficial book club selection.)

At the same time, I kept reading between the lines to learn the author’s story. From the book-jacket flap, I knew Walker writes from professional experience. Before she did her doctoral research on the feminist issue that is fat, she wrote about body image for “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the feminist classic by the Boston Women’s Health Collective.

From the author photo, I also knew Walker is a fat woman. And yet, combing through the reviews and interviews, I could find very little about Walker’s personal experience with food and body image issues.

The therapist in me really wanted to know if Walker, like Plum, had tried and failed to lose weight over and again? If she’d been a victim of fat shaming and stigma? If she’d been discriminated against because of her appearance? What was Walker’s story?

My curiosity moved me to set up a Skype interview with the NYC-based author. What follows are questions and answers from that recent interview with Sarai (pronounced SUH-ray) Walker.

JF: You seem to know a lot about food and body image issues even though you’re not a medical person or scientist. What can you tell me about your personal experience in this arena?

SW: Well, I’m a fat woman, and so I think one of the reasons I wanted to write “Dietland” is I wanted to explore what it’s like to be a fat woman in our contemporary society because I think, while there are some novels with fat heroines, I feel like there aren’t any novels that explore the issue in a serious way. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today (Even A Short Walk): Avoiding A Premature Death

I’ve been having such a hard time dragging myself out in the frigid, icy cold to run or get to a gym lately: there are so many excellent reasons not to do it. But here’s the best I could come up with today for why I shouldn’t listen to that “stay-warm-and-slip-into-bed-with-a-laptop little voice in my head: exercise is truly the “best way to avoid an early death,” according to U.K researchers, who report that even small chunks of exercise — a brisk 20-minute walk, for instance — can provide benefits.

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

The U.K. Telegraph headline sums up the new study tidily: “Lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, Cambridge University finds.”

Indeed, this cohort study of 334,161 European men and women over 12 years, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “physical inactivity may theoretically be responsible for twice as many total deaths as high BMI” and concludes: “The greatest reductions in all-cause mortality risk were observed between the inactive and the moderately inactive groups across levels of general and abdominal adiposity, which suggests that efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be of public health benefit.”

Here’s more from The Telegraph report:

Using the most recent available public data, the researchers calculated that 337,000 of the 9.2 million deaths that occurred in Europe in 2008 could be attributed to obesity.

But physical inactivity was thought to be responsible for almost double this number – 676,000 deaths. Continue reading

Where Does Fat Go When You Lose Weight? Mostly Into Thin Air

(Phoney Nickle/Flickr)

(Phoney Nickle/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

A couple of years ago, Ruben Meerman took off 40 pounds. And that got him wondering: What exactly happened to all that fat?

Conventional wisdom was that he “burned” it off. Or sweated it off. Or excreted it. None of that satisfied Meerman, who has a physics degree and makes his living explaining science to schoolkids and for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

So Meerman tackled the problem and eventually came up with a surprising answer: Most of the lost fat disappears into thin air.

More specifically, 84 percent of those fat molecules get exhaled as colorless, odorless carbon dioxide. The other 16 percent departs the body as H-2-O — plain old water.

Meerman says the discovery “got me really excited because I’d stumbled onto a gap in the knowledge. It struck me as remarkable that no one had thought this was interesting enough to pursue.”

The British Medical Journal thought so too. It has published a paper, co-authored by biochemist Andrew Brown of the University of South Wales, in its annual Christmas issue, which features off-beat (but peer-reviewed) research.

Weight Loss Realism

Meerman hopes the work will dispel misconceptions held by health professionals as well as the general public. And, he hopes it will provide a helpful dose of realism to counter the impossible expectations millions have about weight loss.

If people understand where the fat goes (and how), they’ll get “why there’s a limit to how quickly you can lose weight,” Meerman said in a Skype interview from Sydney. “And if you understand the limit, you won’t be so quickly depressed if you don’t lose 20 pounds in the first two weeks.”

First, the misconceptions. Meerman and Brown surveyed 150 professionals — split equally among family doctors, dietitians and personal trainers — about where they think the fat goes during weight loss.

By far the most common answer was that the fat was transformed into energy or heat — that is, “burned off.” About two-thirds of doctors thought so. A slightly higher proportion of dietitians did too, and about 55 percent of personal trainers.

But that would violate the Law of Conservation of Mass. It’s a basic precept of chemistry, formulated in 1789 by the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, which holds that mass is neither created nor destroyed in chemical reactions. The total mass at the end must equal the mass at the starting point — even if matter is quite transformed in the process, from solid to liquid or gas.

The Energy Of A Bomb

Meerman points out that if fat were transformed into pure energy during weight loss, the results would be cataclysmic. Continue reading

Eat Fat But Stay Thin: Mice Can Do It, Maybe Someday We Can Too

Generic lab mice

Generic lab mice

The journal Nature reports that some lab mice have lived out my food fantasy: Even though they ate a heavy, high-fat diet — my particular dream is unlimited Ben & Jerry’s — they did not become obese, because researchers found a novel way to tweak their metabolism.

Sigh. The caveats first: What works in mice might not in humans. It might not be safe. Clinical trials are not on the immediate horizon. This is no reason to stop eating healthy food and exercising.

But we can dream, right? And we can savor the explanations from Dr. Barbara Kahn of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, senior author on the Nature paper. She sums up: “We found an enzyme in fat that appears to be elevated in people with obesity and diabetes. And if we inhibit it in mice, we can increase the amount of energy that the animal burns, and thereby decrease the amount of calories that are stored as fat.”

It’s something like the extra energy you burn when you exercise, she said — except without the exercise.

Dr. Kahn’s team found a gene that, when suppressed, makes metabolism less efficient — which is actually a good thing if you’re trying to avoid obesity.

“Generally, in our lives, we think it’s good to be efficient — and it certainly is good to be efficient in time management,” she said. “But if your metabolism is efficient, it means you need fewer calories to generate the energy that cells need for their basic metabolism, and therefore, if you eat too many calories, you will put on weight. But if the cells are inefficient, they’ll burn up those extra calories and you won’t put on weight.”

So do these findings — centering on an enzyme known as nicotinamide N-methyltransferase or NNMT — indeed hold the promise of some sort of drug to prevent or treat obesity?

“The approach we used in the mice was mainly prevention,” Dr. Kahn said, “but the same idea should work for treatment of obesity. I have to caution, of course: one has to look into all the safety aspects if one considers such a treatment in humans. But all the cellular machinery is there, so it should work.” Continue reading

Comfort In Cold: Can Shivering Offer Some Benefits Of Exercise?

Brookline, Mass., 1:30 p.m. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Brookline, Mass., 1:30 p.m. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Just a bit of (cold) comfort if you’re stuck outside today: New research suggests that shivering, your body’s way of trying to stay warm, releases a promising hormone called irisin that appears to be connected to some health benefits of exercise.

(More on that here: A Step Toward Health Benefits Of Exercise In A Pill? and here: Exercise Hormone May Fight Obesity And Diabetes.)

So, if it makes you feel better, perhaps you can think of your chattering teeth and quivering limbs as a quick-tempo workout. (But, forgive the nag, careful not to overdo it into hypothermia and frostbite.)

The Telegraph nicely sums up the findings, though the headline — Shivering Can Help You Stay Slim — sounds far too decisive for an initial study:

A new study from scientists at Sydney University has found that placing volunteers in temperatures of less than 59F (15C) for around 10-15 minutes caused hormonal changes equivalent to an hour of moderate exercise.

These same hormonal changes have been linked to the creation of brown fat, a form of fat that actually burns up energy.

And from the press release:

According to new research into the mechanisms involved, shivering releases a hormone that stimulates fat tissue to produce heat so that the body can maintain its core temperature. This hormone, irisin, is also produced by muscle during exercise. The findings, which are published in the February 4 issue of the Cell Press journal Cell Metabolism, demonstrates that the act of shivering produces calorie-burning brown fat and improves metabolism.

Through experiments conducted in healthy volunteers, Dr. Francesco S. Celi of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and his colleagues found that the irisin, produced when the body shivers, is released in proportion to shivering intensity. Furthermore, the amount of irisin secreted as a result of shivering is of similar magnitude to that of exercise-stimulated secretion. The team also found that when human fat cells in the laboratory were treated with FNDC5, a precursor of irisin, the cells burned more energy and released more heat. Continue reading

‘Skinny Jeans’ World: How Do We Protect Daughters From Eating Disorders?

By Katy Aisenberg, Ph.D.
Guest Contributor

 “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness” — Galway Kinnell

After years and tears spent treating girls with eating disorders, I found myself pregnant — in my 40s — with a daughter.

Penelope is now 10, and suddenly, everything I’d preached and chiseled and chipped and interpreted in my office is getting put to the test. How was I going to try to prevent my own child from having an eating disorder?  How would I prevail against a culture of young girls in short shorts, strappy tops and frankly lewd fashion, where my 4th grader must choose between “boyfriend jeans” and “skinny jeans”?  As I had told my patients:  “Many girls entertain diets — not everyone gets an eating disorder.”

Still, I reviewed the early dangers for developing such a disorder — flipping through my own brain for knowledge.

1. Genetics
We had some family history of mood disorders but nothing that seemed so severe it couldn’t be tempered by attentive parenting.

2. Home obsession with foods

I made absolutely sure that nothing in my house was low-fat, low-calorie and insisted that dessert was part of the meal if you ate your ‘growing foods” a useful phrase I learned from her pre-school teacher.

(Valeri-DBF/flickr)

(Valeri-DBF/flickr)

3. Range of affect (or, enough feelings)

Yup, no problem there. My house was never one where feelings were suppressed. In fact, I might have spent too much time inquiring what my child thought or felt. I was politely interrupted. “Mom,” she said, “I’m watching the cars outside” or “Making a friendship bracelet” or “Telling myself a story.”

4. Too much affect

Yes, I wanted to tone this down. She neded to learn resilience — that horrible feelings, the dementors of loneliness, sadness and intense anger can be survived. She needed to endure them and learn to soothe herself. I reminded myself of this as I clenched my nails into my hand while she hurled about in her crib.

5. Too much talk about appearance
I failed on this. I could not even try to stop my outpouring of sheer joy at her natural beauty. I was, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy” in this department. I craved her attention like a jilted suitor. But it amuses both of us — and possibly helped her — that I would joke about my “separation issues.” I believe I gave her the freedom to express those same feelings and a good many more.

6. A sense of purpose  

We are currently working on this. The most effective cure for the most recalcitrant eating disorders is — surprisingly — community service.  Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Boosting Your Blood Supply

Canadian researchers from McMaster University report that vigorous exercise (ok, it’s mice, but still…) can trigger stem cells to become bone, rather than fat, which in turn boosts overall health by enhancing the body’s ability to make blood.

From the press release:

Using treadmill-conditioned mice, a team led by the Department of Kinesiology’s Gianni Parise has shown that aerobic exercise triggers those cells to become bone more often than fat.

The exercising mice ran less than an hour, three times a week, enough time to have a significant impact on their blood production, says Parise, an associate professor.

In sedentary mice, the same stem cells were more likely to become fat, impairing blood production in the marrow cavities of bones. Continue reading

Harvard Study: Dairy Fat To The Rescue From Diabetes?


By Marielle Segarra, WBUR intern

Trans fats are notorious health villains. The trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils can increase your risk for heart disease.

But scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health think one trans fat may substantially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

It’s called trans-palmitoleic acid, and it is found in milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter, but not produced by the body.

The Cardiovascular Health Study, led by Harvard doctors Dariush Mozaffarian and Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, monitored how many of 4,000 participants were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes after 20 years.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers measured participants’ levels of blood glucose, insulin, and blood fatty acids. Back then, participants who had higher levels of the trans fat trans-palmitoleic acid also had healthier blood cholesterol and insulin levels.

20 years later, participants with the most trans-palmitoleic acid (the top 20 percent) had a 60 percent lower risk of developing diabetes than those with the lowest levels.

The study adjusted its percentages for factors that might increase the risk of diabetes, such as age, race, and smoking habits.

Dr. Mozaffarian says that though other recent studies have linked diets rich in diary foods to a lower risk of diabetes, this study goes a step beyond, suggesting that one trans fat is responsible for the drop. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Before Breakfast This Morning

Air Force run at dawn


Just in case you read this before breakfast, quick! Get in your exercise now, before you pour the cereal!

The “Well” blog of the New York Times reports that this time of year can lead to weight gain and high blood sugar but a new study in The Journal of Physiology suggests a good antidote: “Run or bicycle before breakfast. Exercising in the morning, before eating, the study results show, seems to significantly lessen the ill effects of holiday Bacchanalias.”

Only the group that exercised before breakfast gained almost no weight and showed no signs of insulin resistance. They also burned the fat they were taking in more efficiently. “Our current data,” the study’s authors wrote, “indicate that exercise training in the fasted state is more effective than exercise in the carbohydrate-fed state to stimulate glucose tolerance despite a hypercaloric high-fat diet.”

And may I add, if you get the workout done before breakfast, you don’t have to spend the rest of the day procrastinating.