I've voiced my skepticism of, and exasperation with, the diet mythos before. If you just started following me (like, I don't know, through the #sciart or the recent Book Blogger Appreciation Week Twitter events...!), you can watch me lose my mind at diet culture and at BMI as a meaningful metric. These things touch a nerve with me because I was a fat kid, and now I'm definitely a fat adult. (Haters to the left!) I won't get into my life story here; that's fodder for a Talky Tuesday post, maybe. But I think it's important to know where I was coming from in reading this book, and what I was hoping to get out of it.
To the point: Brady is a skilled and readable science writer, so the book is a breeze. I've read a lot of non-fiction in my day, and I've found that the science-related ones fall into two camps: they either cite specific studies and sources and work to interpret and explain the results and how they fit into the author's larger thesis (Cure was really good at this) or they simply state an opinion/trend with a vague "studies have shown" and then fail to specifically name or explain the studies (except in the bibliography). Brady manages to make ideas clear and easy to understand and treats you like a reasonably intelligent adult who lacks the specific knowledge (or access) to interpret data and medical studies.
Brady is also extremely careful about the implications of much of his research. One of the building blocks in his argument is the protein leverage hypothesis: that obesity rates are connected with a deficiency in protein in the modern diet.
See, you read something like that, and you think: "Wow, there's the silver bullet! I'll just eat nothing but protein and I'll be wearing a size 2 by Christmas!"
Brady knows exactly how this will come off, and so he carefully (and responsibly, IMO) mitigates it with the warning that we still don't know what happens when we eat too much protein (preliminary data seem to suggest that, among other things, excessive protein might be damaging for the kidneys), that adipose tissue (fat) serves a protective and necessary role, and that given humans' universal tendency to gain weight over time (about a pound per year), almost anything that causes prolonged, effortless weight loss probably has some kind of scary side effect or cause (illnesses such as cancer or thyroid dysfunction). Also, many of the health conditions we associate with obesity turn out not to have much of a correlation with weight at all. Smoking is still worse for you than being a fatty, turns out!
That is what sets this book apart from fad diet and "nutrition" books. Brady doesn't assume that you want to go on a diet or lose weight, but rather that you have a genuine curiosity about the body and how it works. He emphasizes again and again that we should not only stop seeing obesity as a problem of will power, but as a problem at all. He's not selling you a miracle diet, a meal plan, or a training regimen. He's just a guy who's found a lot of interesting research and wants to share it with you, which makes it the best kind of science reading.
That said, at the end of the day you're still relying on the author to be correctly interpreting this data for us. Brady is the one with access to the papers: not me, and not you. All of my gut (haha) instincts point to him being knowledgeable in the field, familiar enough with the terminology and the requisite background information, and just generally clear-eyed (and honest) enough to see the data for what they are (more or less) and not for what he wants them to be (more or less) or for what will sell a book (more or less). But then, I went into this book pretty much agreeing with Brady from the get-go, so I'll admit I didn't come at this one with a critical, defensive edge.
And it would be hard for me to do that, anyway, since I'm not a doctor! But I also finished this right after a much more irritating book that had me side-eyeing at every turn; with What is Fat For? I just wanted to sit back, relax, and learn.
The only moment the book made me stop and go "hmmmm =/" for a moment was just one or two parts on the topic of exercise that seemed to understate what its effects on health (unrelated to getting smaller). Yes, exercise alone certainly won't make you smaller, but it still seems to have demonstrably (and dramatically) good effects on health otherwise. While life is too short to waste time on things you hate (why I'll never run a marathon), there are probably appropriate and fun ways to move for almost every body (and everybody). Even if I'll never run a marathon, I love going on walks, yoga, and weight lifting. (And back in the day, running regularly did make a significant dent in my blood pressure. But I also hated running.) Naturally, everyone gets to decide for themselves if they're going to move and how much, but we can still admit that it's a good thing.
This is certainly the highest-quality self-published book I've read yet, bar none. The more I think about it, though, the more I'm wondering: why self-publish? The topic is popular enough, and the writing is good enough, that any publisher would have picked it up in a heartbeat. Considering that legacy publishers put out victim-blaming woo garbage like The Secret without a second thought, I doubt the means of What is Fat For?'s release into the book wilds indicate anything about the veracity of the claims therein. But it's enough to nag.
Content aside, there are a few formatting problems. Of course, I'd rather read excellent, focused writing with formatting issues than mediocre writing that's perfectly formatted, so this is a small complaint, but it's worth noting.
NetGalley sent me the eBook version, and the formatting on this is a mess. A hot mess. I don't know if it was some kind of XML error or just the difference between how something looks on a Kindle versus on the Kindle app on a smartphone, but on about half of the pages there would be bizarre word smashes.
It's easier if I show you:
At first glance it looks fine, but look carefully at that black space between the last two "paragraphs": those aren't different paragraphs, but just one with some weirdness in it, thanks to a misplaced block of empty space:
"While there may be a way to present an argument in either field using just logic and pure reason, math becomes complex necessary as the questions become more and better defined."
If you don't read carefully, that might still sound okay. But look closer: "math becomes complex necessary..."
From the best I can gather, it should read:
"While there may be a way to present an argument in either field using just logic and pure reason, as the questions become more and better defined complex math becomes necessary."
Or maybe something similar. There was something like this on every page. Sometimes I could sort it, but other times it was impossible to make out.
"His by recognizing this: Hunger is we modern, complicated, guilty, mouth dries; he can barely swallow, but manages."
Likewise, there are a few charts and graphs in the book, and most of them are essentially non-existent. Many of the graphs turn up as a list of their Y-axis values. Charts are squashed into incoherence.
Both of these problems seem to be an inherent issue with dealing with the eBook format. Maybe this is where the budget ran out? The author info also mentions something about a website (WhatIsFatFor.com or some such) but as of this writing it seems to be defunct, without even a trace on Archive.Org. The book isn't old by any means, so: has the website just not launched yet? is it just temporarily down? Did Brady decide to pull it?
All in all, I enjoyed What is Fat For? and I'd recommend it for your own reading (fun facts!) and as a part of a Health At Every Size/Fat Acceptance library/GP toolkit.
As this was a free book from NetGalley, I'm obligated to let you know that I received it in exchange for an honest review.