I tend to have a pretty unconventional philosophy about food and diet. Having self-experimented over the years in dietary extremes, I feel like I’ve landed in a very grounded and skeptical place, with little respect for the standard American diet, or mainstream advice. And a healthy distaste for many of the fringe health trends. I did the fat-free thing in high school, and managed to lose fat and fertility (that’s right, I was so committed to eliminating fat on my body and in my diet that I stopped menstruating!) Then I was vegan for six years. The kind that made almost every single meal from scratch, carefully supplemented, and ate very little processed food. And I somehow managed to get chubby that way, as well as giving myself hypothyroidism, amongst other hormonal shenanigans. Good job! I have since been on a decade-long journey of correcting all of the damage I did to my system when I went to those extremes, and am now in a pretty good place. These days, even though I totally love researching nutrition, natural health and food ethics, I mostly keep my mouth shut about what I think other people should do, unless they ask me. If they do, I tend to have lots and opinions and passion about the subject, and do my very best to constrain my zeal. (So now you know!)
On to the book, Why Women Need Fat. There are a couple of things I have to mention right away. The book is written by two men, for women. About women. And fat. That is a very tricky equation, if you ask me. One is an epidemiologist, and one is an anthropologist. On the one hand, it’s super interesting to hear from an anthropologist about human behavior and body shape. On the other hand, these guys go on and on and on about how much more attractive women with smaller waists are, citing studies about men’s reactions to pictures of women, their BMI’s, waist sizes, and hip and thigh fat. They do not handle delicately the fact that heavier women with waist fat are not very attractive to most men, and that, if a man could design the ideal woman, her waist would be impossibly small (they refer us to female comic book characters to get an idea of the fantasy woman’s body shape.) They also keep referring to “Playmate bodies” as the closest to what men find ideal. I think their approach is pretty tactless. I think women can handle the truth, but they are talking about a real population here, and the descriptions of body types are not very clinical. They do make some more painful blunders in this regard, for example when they describe certain shapes and weights as “best mothers.” So, you have to be a little tough to get through that part. But you should, because it is really a very good book.
Despite the seeming rudeness of the authors’ descriptions of women’s bodies, I love the way they explain the physiology of weight gain and distribution. Understanding why we tend to carry more weight in our hips and thighs gave me a new respect for those softer areas. Also understanding the changes that take place in body composition throughout life stages was very helpful, once again inspiring awe for my body’s design, and an ability to see the beauty of the changes, rather than the loathing that can often occur when we acknowledge that we don’t look like we used to.
The nutritional elements of this book are very good, and, I believe, information that will help many women (and men.) The book starts out by going into much of the politics behind the current attitudes towards fat (and types of fat) and how that has affected Americans today. I am familiar with much of this already, but one thing that sparked an Aha! moment was the information about omega 3 fat storage. We get omega 3 fats from mainly animal sources, including butter, and these are stored in hip and thigh fat. When women don’t eat enough of these kinds of fats, their bodies have to store more fat, in hopes of building good enough reserves to nurture their future babies’ brains during pregnancy and breastfeeding. So, women eating plenty of these fat sources can afford to be slimmer. Fascinating! The authors advocate increasing animal fats and decreasing vegetable oils (goodbye margarine and Crisco!) in our diets to bring us back to more normal fat storage patterns. Part of the nutritional aspect that I found to be disappointing is the lack of emphasis on insulin’s role in regulating body fat storage. I think they wanted to mainly emphasize the importance of fats, since that is the premise of the book, but it seems a little one-sided to me.
Why Women Need Fat is packed with so much information, including pervasive myths about diet and fat, and lots of recommendations to help women make a shift to a healthier, more hormonally-balanced body composition. I could certainly do without all of the obsession with BMI numbers and assumptions that I am currently 20 pounds heavier than I should be simply because most of my generation is. There are lots of formulas to help one determine her ideal weight, by measuring bone widths. I don’t think this is all that helpful, and seems to be more of the anthropologist’s obsession. But the main information in this book is good. And good for women, I think, because it explains why our bodies do what they do, and how incredibly our bodies do the work of protecting our health and that of our children (whether real or potential.) Buy the book, don’t let the insensitive approach get you down, and enjoy learning how incredible the female body’s design is. And have some more butter!
P.S. There is a book club discussion going on right now at BlogHer, just click here to join the discussion or learn more.