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Book Review: Gene Eating - The Science of Obesity and the Truth about Diets

27 August 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1012

Gene Eating: The Science of Obesity and the Truth about Diets

By Dr Giles Yeo

Published by Seven Dials

ISBN-10: 1841882917, ISBN-13: 978-1841882918

Buy this book from Amazon UK

It's never been easier to eat more and move less, so it's no surprise that the worldwide prevalence of obesity has more than doubled since the 1980s. As a result, we're constantly bombarded with messages about what we should eat, how we should exercise and what we should look like. With so much 'advice' at our fingertips, whose guidance do we follow and how do we get to the truth?

'Gene Eating', published last year, goes some way to answering this from the point of view of a geneticist. The author, Professor Giles Yeo, applies 20 years of experience in obesity and genetics research at the University of Cambridge to explore the science behind our food choices and expose the truth about diets. Despite the title, Professor Yeo makes it clear from the outset that this is not a diet book, but is in fact, an 'anti-"diet" book'.

Using a wealth of personal anecdotes and evidence from the scientific literature, which are referenced throughout, Professor Yeo delves into how our genes respond to our food environment and how they've been shaped by evolution and influence our susceptibility to weight gain and obesity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main message for losing weight is to eat less and exercise more. However, he does point out that for many of us this requires fighting tirelessly against our genes.

The book is mostly jargon-free, easy to read, and I like the way Professor Yeo uses humour to add light and shade throughout. The book starts with a broad overview of genetics, which at times could be too basic for experts or too detailed for beginners, but I think most readers will appreciate the use of illustrations and interesting real-world examples to explain complex concepts. A significant proportion of the book focuses on using science to confront the advocates of so-called 'clean diets' and challenge common misconceptions. As he eloquently puts it 'debunking marketing nonsense and toxic diet advice.'

This book will appeal to those interested in an evidence-based and realistic approach to understanding how our genes and environment shape our food choices. It's also a fascinating read for those, like me, who are curious about the darker side of the fad diet industry and want to know why 'quick fixes' simply don't work and, in some cases, cause more harm than good.

The final section of the book takes a more philosophical approach as Professor Yeo reflects on the influence of social media and the role of 'influencers' in setting unhealthy goals - in essence 'selling snake oil to the vulnerable'. He also urges us to be more aware as a society - to fight against fat and food shaming, call out untruths whenever and wherever we can and avoid being 'seduced by the dream'. I would have liked to see the connection between genes, diet and mental health developed a little further as well as Professor Yeo's belief that the perfect diet is written in our genes. However, Professor Yeo does pack a lot of information into one book so it's understandable that some subjects are covered in less detail.

Although Professor Yeo insists this is not a diet book, he ends the book with advice in the form of six universal 'Yeo truths', which he said he discovered while researching and writing the book. The guidance can hardly be argued with, but you might be disappointed to learn that for now, there are no short cuts.

Overall, the book is engaging, scientifically rigorous and - in a world of misinformation and pseudoscience - offers some sound advice. So next time I hear about a 'miracle' weight loss pill or diet, I'll be more inclined to question the evidence and consider Professor Yeo's closing statement: 'go forth, be sensible, be moderate even with moderation.'

Buy Gene Eating: The Science of Obesity and the Truth about Diets from Amazon UK.

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