walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_Hundred Year Diet_, Susan Yager

Subtitled: America's Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight

First, a quote: "A similar triad has been applied to obesity. The external agent includes the separate elements of increased portion sizes, technologically driven lifestyle changes, and the 24/7 availability of fast and convenience foods. As hosts, in this case we do more than just breathe in when we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lack of education about good nutrition, health-positive behaviors and attitudes, and human physiology; lack of adequate exercise; and a lack of a sense of responsibility and of forethought about health all contribute to the epidemic. The environmental factors stem from the institutionalized systematic support of the problem -- including political, economic, and social influences. And like a virus, obesity can be "caught," because we tend to mirror the activities of those around us."

Then about a page-ish further along, this:

"Making kids aware of the elements of an optimal diet and the negative results of a bad one is the first line of defense, and the best."

Her ideas about how to do _that_ range from class trips to the supermarket (buy this, not that) to teaching grade school kdis how to "prepare salads, vegetables, and simple, nutritious meals".

Her final sentences are:

Wendell Berry "described a New England farm in the first half of the 20th century as modest but successful because "its needs were kept within the limits of its resources." I can't imagine a better way to frame a diet, or a life, for the next 100 years."

This is a book nominally about the history of dieting in the US which frames the solution to her "problem" as a massive curriculum change nationwide, and which concludes by saying flat out she can't imagine a better life than a New England farm in the first half of the 20th century. The review almost writes itself. Almost.

First and foremost, Yager appears to have entirely missed the critique of what happened to the food industry when it became obvious that tobacco wasn't going to be a growth industry forever. As tobacco companies diversified into food, they applied the same techniques they had learned from selling cigarettes: make it for a penny, sell it for a dollar, and make sure it's _damn_ addictive (to twist Buffett's assessment of the industry decades ago). It is a lapse that makes anything else she might say about the "problem" of America being on a diet and not very successfully, well, useless.

Second, as a history of dieting, Yager is about as good as anyone else I've read, but not obviously better. Her micro-bios of some of the major players are good, and she does a better-than-average job of tracing the lineage of low-carb/low-fat/low-protein/low-calorie/just plain wacky variations. On the other hand, there is a certain tone to her description of the diets and dieters which I think is well illustrated in the above snippets.

So if you read this book, you'll learn a lot of interesting things, and as long as you recognize that this is "storytelling" the history of dieting, not fact checking (even tho the author erratically calls some of the assertions into question but not others, without any pattern I was able to discern), you probably won't learn a lot of things that are untrue (that is, you'll learn that a lot of other people have believed certain untrue things). But it's tricky enough that I'm not sure a recommendation this qualified qualifies as a recommendation.

I'm thinking about writing something long-ish (maybe for my next Not Really NaNoWriMo effort) about how I read books. One of the points that I would make in that long-ish thing is that most books present a "problem" and then offer a "solution". For instance, the Rissa Kerguelen novels by F.M. Busby present a problem (overpopulation, an socioeconomic system unable to provide an adequate level of desired services to his members which is initially addressed by enslaving and sterilizing a large block of the population and employing another block of the population to keep them locked up and out of trouble and then diverting all the resources to a much smaller wedge of the population) and a solution (get most of those people back out of "Welfare Centers" and usefully employed and replace mandatory sterilization of all those enslaved with mandatory reversible sterilization of all women). The mechanism of the novels (the escape of Rissa and a whole bunch of other people and their eventual triumphant return to Earth to implement the solution) is, of course, where all the entertainment value is; my critique of this problem/solution construct is an effort to get at some of the subtext that I find obvious and creepy and a lot of readers seem to miss entirely (including my younger self).

Yager's "problem" is that we are fat and getting fatter, and we've been worried about being fat and getting fatter for a long time (at least a hundred years), whether it was justified or not, and what we did as a result of that didn't noticeably modify the trendline. Her solution, as noted above, is to modify the curriculum of schools nationwide, mostly to teach people to live a much less exciting and rewarding life, that is to say, be virtuously poor.

My long-ish critique would get into why people pick the problem they picked, whether I even agree that it is something that is "changeworthy" at all, much less a high priority (and these are the books I _choose_ to read!!!). But let's just hand Yager that as a freebie: yes, we're fat. Yes, we're getting fatter. Yes, it might be a good idea to turn that around a bit. Yes, it might actually be important to do that soon-ish and worth devoting some resources to the effort.

The other half of the long-ish critique would then ask whether I think the solution would solve the problem as stated if implemented, what I think the chances of implementation ever occurring might be, and whether there are other fairly obvious solutions out there that would accomplish the same goals and have as good or better odds of implementation. To be fair, Yager comes out strongly in favor of sin taxes on junk food and labeling requirements (IIRC), which I think are fairly obvious incremental strategies to improving a really toxic food environment that have high odds of being implemented (in that they have already been implemented in some places).

I would just like to point out the following. We have national regulation of food: the FDA, the USDA, probably some more of the alphabet soup. We have other levels of food regulation as well that have been quite influential on the national food supply (Pennsylvania baked goods regulations spring to mind). We have _nothing_ even remotely like this for school curriculum at _any level_. Proposing to solve a big problem (fat and getting fatter) by turning it into an insanely intractable problem (massive changes to school curriculum nationwide) sets off all my, yeah, that'll happen, not sensors. I don't mean, not soon. I mean, not _ever_.

Finally, because the scope of the problem is treated as a what-we-(don't)-eat issue, exercise gets passing discussion only. That's okay, if it's a history of dieting with a "problem" and "solution" along the lines of, "how do people decide what to eat", and "well, here are a list of examples, and we can identify these commonalities among them". But the "problem" of this book is not that kind of knowledge-for-the-sake-of-understanding. The "problem" of this book is getting people to stop getting fatter and, ideally, thin down some. Yager has some awareness that exercise is a crucial component of this, but does not explore the issue in enough detail to understand it -- and the "storytelling" approach would make any understanding she derived not useful for proposing a "solution". Worse, Yager has at least passing awareness that this whole living long distances from where we go to school/work/shop/etc. is a problem, in that we drive instead of walking or bicycling or whatever. But it is _only_ a passing awareness.

Yager appears to be completely captured by her formulation of the problem: we "decide" what we eat (from a selection which is heavily influenced if not completely controlled by others), so it is a personal choice. Thus, changing what we eat (to deal with this fat and getting fatter thing, a connection that just fails every single time I articulate it) is a personal choice. If someone actually wanted to get a population of people to eat better food and/or less food and/or get more exercise and/or generally be healthier, there are _much_ better approaches that involve some amount of political, regulatory, legislative or other forms of group action, designed to change the selection from which we are all making personal choices.

But if you can't even think it, it's hard to see how it can be done. So my solution is kinda weak, as well.

Should you read it? If it's the kind of thing you like, it won't be a waste of your time. But as a policy guide? Rotten at the core.
Tags: book review, food, non-fiction
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