Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

NYT reporter’s lecture to examine politics of weight loss

Biology determines the limits to how fat or thin individuals can be, even if they eat healthy and exercise regularly — and decades of rigorous scientific studies prove this, says New York Times reporter Gina Kolata.

“You should not beat yourself up if you fail to achieve and maintain a weight that you think would be ideal,” she says. “You can look good at many weights and you can be healthy and fit.

“I'd like to be taller than 5 feet 3 inches. I'd like to have perfect eyesight, but biology does not let me. The same is true for weight. There really is a biological limit to what each person can achieve.”

Kolata will give the 2009 Motorola Lecture at 7 p.m. March 5 in the Michigan Union Pendleton Room. The public lecture is co-sponsored by the Department of Women’s Studies and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

She will discuss her book “Rethinking Thin,” which reveals that society’s obsession with weight loss is less about health than about money, politics and cultural ideals.

“There’s no system, period, that will make a dramatic and permanent difference in people’s weights,” says Kolata, a senior writer at the New York Times and an award-winning science and medical journalist. In addition to writing about medical research for the Times, she also writes “Personal Best,” a monthly fitness column. “Almost everyone who is fat has tried every system that exists, and often tried them more than once.”

Science has shown that people have limited control over how thin they can be. “Many people can lose some weight,” she says, “but most cannot become arbitrarily thin. This does not mean you can’t be healthy and fit.”

Weight loss fads started ages ago, but picked up in the late 19th century and have been unabated since then. Kolata says these fads often were promoted by evangelical true believers, like William Banting, an undertaker in England whose book on his low carbohydrate diet became an international best seller.

In the early 20th century, three technologies emerged to fuel the dieting boom: the bathroom scale, full length mirrors and photographs in newspapers and magazines.

“Suddenly people could find out what they weighed, see what they looked like, and see photographs of celebrities and models that looked the way they wanted to look,” she says.

Kolata earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Maryland. She studied molecular biology at M.I.T. in a doctoral program from 1969-71, but left to pursue a writing career.

“I have always loved exercise and wanted to know what to believe about how to train and what exercise actually does for you,” says Kolata, who, before coming to the Times in 1987, was a senior writer for Science Magazine.

Covering the weight loss industry has “a special intrigue because there seems to be a growing disconnect between what science finds and what the public believes,” she says.

Kolata has written five other books, including the bestseller “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It.”

As a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Kolata has received many awards including the prestigious Susan G. Komen Foundation’s media award for reporting on women’s issues and breast cancer.