In what may seem a shocking departure in our current paradigm of obesity and overweight, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin gives another take on the obesity issue that is instead focused on genetics and disease more than our own willpower. Even beyond this, it tells a story of the industries that benefit from obesity and how they may be encouraging some of the more unhealthy behaviors that drive the current obesity rates.

The obesity rate, according to the CDC, is more than one-third of all U.S. adults, approximately 35%. 

In The Hungry Gene, Shell first starts by delving into some of the genetics research that is taking place to uncover how our bodies process and store fat, how we become satiated, and what it looks like when our bodies can no longer do such things. She attempts to show how our current thinking about obesity as largely a psychological phenomenon may be skewed and that, instead, powerful physiological factors also help drive our hunger.

Shell next takes us to the small island of Kosrae in the Pacific where nearly 85% of adults ages 45 to 64 are obese. Kosraeans are largely dependent on highly processed, imported food products. Her study of this island helps bridge the two main themes of her book–that genetics do play a part in our current obesity crisis, but also that certain political and industry factors may also be instigating the problem. 

In the final section of the book, Shell discusses the implications of the modern fast food industry, prescription weight-loss pills, and the decline of physical education in schools. By the end, she shows how certain industries could be benefiting from the deluge of overweight and obese people and introduces ideas for legislation or guidelines to help with the problem.

As Shell writes:

“We can no longer afford to be embarrassed, or to avert our eyes from the forces underlying this tragic circumstance. Science has taught us that the obesity pandemic is less a matter of individual differences than of societal pressures, and of the power of the institutions that impose them.” 

While The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin shows us the different sides of the obesity debate, it leaves us only with more questions and few answers. The obesity pandemic in itself is a highly complicated issue that will need to fix the many, many factors driving it today.

Have you read The Hungry Gene? What are your thoughts on the book? 

Image by Thomas Abbs via Flicker


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