Thinfluence by Walter Willett, Malissa Wood, and Dan Childs (Rodale, 2014)
This is a book written by a giant (of thought, not size) in the world of nutrition research and a cardiologist who woefully reports that she gained 12 pounds during her internship. In Thinfluence, Walter Willett and Malissa Wood have no argument with the fact that obesity has become an unhappy epidemic in this country. But they do argue about its causes: obesogenic factors, they feel certain, are not limited to our own hapless, bereft-of-will selves. “The notion that we are … islands when it comes to our weight simply isn’t true,” they write. In a nation that stresses self-determination, we are not fully responsible—at least in this case—for our actions.
Thinfluence is not a scholarly book for medical professionals. Its point is to educate and motivate in simple ways. It starts with a diagram, a visual thesis: four concentric circles featuring examples of internal and external influences that contribute to obesity. Readers should probably keep one finger on that page while reading; as when referring to the cast of characters in a Shakespearean play, they may want to keep flipping back to it.
We are acted upon from within and without, Willett and Wood write. Irresistible internal factors such as genes and emotions are corrosively affected by external factors like physical environment, marketing, and public policy. Pounds result from the combination of one-two punches. The negative synergy that results seems impossible to contend with, yet the authors insist, believably, that it can be.
A large part of the book explains why and how they’ve found this to be true. Studies are decoded into straightforward conclusions (one such conclusion—that supportive friendships increase one’s consumption of fruits and vegetables—was news to me). There are self-assessments distantly related to take-home quizzes as well as conversational asides (for example, “your emotional eating emergency kit”). Readers taking notes, with the hand that isn’t holding a place at the diagram, will find plenty of small and large recommendations, from how to refuse hors-d’oeuvres and alcohol wittily to how to influence food policy.
In some ways, reading this book is like eating healthy fast food: it’s palatable, nutritious, and cooked with simple ingredients that are easy to spell. The book is a recipe for dietary and planetary health, and the authors make their points—diet, exercise, community activity, political activism—in a boiled-down, occasionally homespun, but overall endearing, way. “If there were a shopping mall that sold the full range of actions we could take to live a healthier life,” they write, “motivation would be the money in our wallets.”
On a particularly beautiful autumn day, if a reader is motivated to take an extra-long bike ride instead of finishing one or two of the self-assessment quizzes, Willett and Wood would probably approve. Maybe, in their good health, they are outside themselves, biking in the same direction.
Elissa Ely ’87 is a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist.
Photo: Jake Miller