The Hungry Gene by Ellen Ruppel Shell

November 11, 2006 at 12:36 am (health, nonfiction, science)

When I plucked this title from the stacks at a college library book give away last week I was not expecting it to hold my interest. I found the title and subject intriguing but doubted the writer’s ability to bring the subject to life, for no other reason then I’d never come across a writer who could. Then again, I haven’t attempted to read many books on the obesity epidemic in America, so I probably have no business making such grand statements. In any case, I was immensely pleased to discover tight prose jam packed with scientific fun facts about obesity!

The Hungry GeneDon’t let the previous sentence fool you, this is no light read.  Accomplished science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell has written a book that will make you re-evaluate not just what you put in your mouth, but why you make the food choices you do and precisely how your particular tastes developed. She takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the weight loss industry starting with the science of weight loss surgery, continuing on to the search for obesity related genes, the manufacture and use of diet pills, and ending up discussing the way fast food is marketed to the masses.

One of the great strengths of this work is Shell’s ability to weave a story. The scientists profiled aren’t just M.D.’s, they are individuals who smoke cigars and garden in their spare time. She makes a point of describing their homes and noting their individual idiosyncrasies, creating a world full of characters the reader wants to follow into the lab, where we find professional backstabbing and greed.

Shell explains the science in a straight forward and easy to grasp manner. She writes of how genetics influence body weight and how environmental factors, such as an abundant intake of unhealthy food or a regular exercise regimen, can work with or against a genetic predisposition to obesity. Ultimately, Shell proposes food marketing and consumption be regulated much as the tobacco industry is, suggesting consumers pay additional tax on grossly unhealthy foods and putting limits on marketing directed toward children.

I am still trying to figure out if I agree with Shell’s conclusions. However, this book was so engaging, so well written; now I’m interested in delving further into the subject. Perhaps I’ll read a book that takes the opposing view that the obesity epidemic has been greatly exaggerated. This work got me thinking and I suspect that was one of Shell’s goals. Mission accomplished.

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