Cracking the Obesity Crisis by Veronica M McNally

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Cracking the Obesity Crisis by Veronica M McNally

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Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 1.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Largely common-sense and disorganised advice on weight loss does not redeem this book's poor structure, lack of copy-editing and a dubious set of moral and social beliefs about obesity and fat people. The recipes in the second half make a perfectly reasonable practical collection, but are pretty standard and lack consistent nutrition data or background information and are not chosen with any obvious underlying rationale. Where nutrition data is provided, it appears to be frequently wrong. I cannot recommend Cracking the Obesity Crisis, either as a practical aid to weight loss and healthy living or as an informative book on nutrition.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 256 Date: September 2016
Publisher: AuthorHouse
ISBN: 978-1524662004

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Any weight-related book, whether one that considers issues from a medical or sociological perspective, or one that provides advice on how to eat well or lose weight, whose opening pages feature such as controversial statements as: fat people are basically insecure, unhappy people trapped inside very unattractive bodies, or Islamic people however are at an advantage as they do Ramadan and they are not overweight, there is hope for overweight and obese people, but I don’t see a way back for the clinically aid [sic] morbidly obese or my personal favourite: as women’s hands are smooth and soft in many cases, females would be useful behind soldiers to be there as assistants to men quickly reloading magazines of bullets speedily, any such book needs to provide an awful lot of valuable content in the pages that follow to have a chance of redeeming itself.

Sadly, Cracking the Obesity Crisis does no such thing.

Of the 500+ pages, approximately half are devoted to recipes, the rest is a mixture of healthy eating and weight loss advice, nutrition information, and social commentary.

I will start with the recipes because it's nice to start with something fairly positive, and the recipes are by far the best thing about Cracking the Obesity Crisis.

There is a generous selection of those, more than 250 pages, logically starting with starters, progressing to beef, poultry, vegetables, and the like and ending with desserts. The selection is best described as conventional contemporary British cooking. I had a good browse and found numerous dishes that many people living in Britain would recognise from their regular kitchen practice. If you wanted a collection of everyday recipes with a few more elaborate deserts thrown in, the second half of Cracking the Obesity Crisis is as good a place to start as any, though there is nothing of particular interest there, and there is no rhyme nor reason to the choices. I dearly love the idea of Banofee Pie, Crepes Suzette and creamy soups finding their way to a book concerned with weight loss, but a possible rationale for such inclusion escapes me.

It surprised me that only some of the recipes provided any nutrition information, usually limited to calorie content and low/medium/high fat and fibre indicators. It seems a serious omission for a weight-concerned book that recommends calorie counting for weight loss. What's more concerning, though, is that the recipes that do provide nutrition data get it wrong. I normally don't fact check numbers, but a recipe for carrot soup with 500 calories per serving caught my eye. It was a simple recipe, so a very basic count quickly demonstrated that the calorie content was overestimated by more than 100%: the soup had under 250 calories per serving, and that is with extremely generous assumptions of how large a large carrot or large onion is. Surprised by this, I checked a couple more and again, found significant errors. Energy content of creamy potato gratin recipe was overestimated by more than 50%, and even a three-ingredient creamy courgette soup recipe got it wrong by 65%, this time underestimating it.

While on the issue of numbers, 500g is not 116oz but about 17oz, 150ml is not 1½ pints but more like ¼ pint, and using 150ml of liquid for cooking soup for four people is unlikely to work.

It might be that the author used unreliable sources, or might be nothing more than sloppy editing of the text, but a nutritionist-author should make some effort to get these things right. Three out of three incorrect calorie counts are not acceptable, especially in combination with the glaring conversion errors.

Moving somewhat backwards to the content that immediately precedes the recipe section, the nutrition and weight loss advice Veronica McNally gives is mostly common-sense: medium calorie reduction, slow weight loss, change eating habits not just diet, set realistic targets, consult GP if on any medication, cut out alcohol, don't weigh yourself every day, exercise. Such advice is also available from countless online and offline sources for free.

McNally also makes some more controversial points, particularly in suggesting regular supplementation with multivitamins as well numerous other substances including vitamin C, B-complex, fish oils as well as essential and non-essential fatty acids.

Supplementation might be necessary for some people with certain medical conditions in some cases, but the mainstream scientific consensus -- and the anecdotal experience of millions of healthy people leading healthy lives without any pills -- is that most people get all necessary nutrients from a well-balanced diet, precisely the kind of diet Veronica McNally promotes in her book, even if slightly calorie-reduced for slow and sustainable weight loss.

In addition to over-enthusiastic promotion of supplements, McNally's book contains a bizarrely cultish section devoted to Avon Cosmetic's facial products, including the suggestion that their application from as early as your 20's will prevent ageing. There is no sense or reason to this, and the choice of that particular middling American brand is not justified in any way: it could be Nivea Crème, it could be home-made organic oils and exotic absolutes preparations, it could be Crème de La Mer or Guerlain's Orchidee Imperiale, but either way a sudden side trip about a particular cosmetic brand is odd.

The rest of the volume is a mish-mash of scientific and pseudo-scientific data regarding nutrition and bizarre, not to say at times seemingly deranged ranting on evils of obesity, and on wider social issues.

Surprisingly for an anti-obesity manifesto, McNally offers very little information on the well documented medical risks of obesity, especially extreme obesity. Her argument for the - eminently sensible -- suggestion of throwing away the deep fat fryer, buying a blender and a steamer, getting fit and getting slim, and making one's own individual contribution to cracking the obesity crisis seems to be rooted in the idea that fat is ugly and immoral.

And this underlying set of beliefs that I won't hesitate to call fat-phobic, rather than the mostly uncontroversial call to eat healthily and not be too fat, is one of the biggest problems with Cracking the Obesity Crisis.

These beliefs range from claims that it's impossible to be attractive while overweight (elsewhere she makes a much more sensible suggestion of aiming for size 8 to 16, despite the fact that many women wearing a British 14/16 are likely to be at least technically overweight), to describing fat people as a national security threat. I don't think I'll ever get out of my head the vision of a hopeless line of obese squaddies prevented by their adipose tissue from physically embracing machine guns aimed at advancing lean and mean Islamic State fighters.

Jokes aside, the social commentary McNally provides seems unnecessary and at least at times profoundly wrong: "Because of the environmental problems created in the 20th Century, resulting in the melting of the polar ice caps, the Open University thought in June 2015 that the World will come to an end by 2052 and we will all drown." There is a curiously apocalyptic current in McNally's thinking, an interesting combination of a conservative mind-set, Biblical imagery with frequent references to the Scriptures specifically and God and Jesus generally, and social distaste. I don't want to bore my readers with too many quotes, but I can't resist this one: "In the 21st in the UK there is a new underclass of black, white, Indian and mixed race young people, the prodigy of the 20th, single mothers, thieves, looters, deviants, not just unemployed but unemployable at least some of them", and this: "…disease orthodox medicine cannot control any more than they did in the 1400’s in Western Europe caused by the black rat, hence the name the Black Death, could happen even in the 21st Century and cause a pandemic again to result in a cull in the World’s population on a scale never known before". Another reference to the Great Plague, complete with a Ring-a-ring o' roses quote, appears elsewhere in the book and the author does seem to rather relish these apocalyptic visions. Incidentally, Black Death wasn't called Black Death because of the black rats, but the tissue necrosis associated with the disease, and the Ring-a-ring o' roses nursery rhyme's association with the plague is an urban myth.

But let us not be too picky about historical and folklorist accuracy. I take much bigger exception to McNally's statement that those in the Western World who are clinically or morbidly obese are making no contribution to society at all except increasing the price of food, making life more difficult for those who are working hard to sustain the economy, as well as our ageing population. Let us clarify some things. Obese is defined as BMI greater than 30: for example a person of 5'7 who weighs 200 pounds (slightly above 14 stone). Not thin for sure, but not exactly incapable of contributing to society, or even being fit and otherwise healthy. Even morbid obesity, defined usually as BMI exceeding 40, although -- unlike 'normal' obesity -- more unequivocally associated with some serious chronic health problems, doesn't usually or immediately lead to an individual being incapacitated and reduced to relying on charity or social security benefits for the sustenance of their self-destructive eating habits.

Although very few question that obesity, especially above the BMI of 35 can and often does lead to negative health outcomes, and that maintaining healthy levels of activity is more difficult if one is greatly overweight, suggesting that fat people are morally or socially irresponsible, or a danger to the society would be laughable if it wasn't potentially destructive. Paul Campos' Obesity Myth offers an imperfect but fascinating examination of the cultural and scientific bias in obesity related research and the (mostly American) obsession with the thin.

The 100+ pages devoted to nutrition contain some useful information on food groups, vitamins, minerals, macro and micro elements although it is surrounded by more dubious, incoherent claims. Some of it is presented in a vague, borderline-bizarre manner: Protein is different as it is based on, not just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, but as so nitrogen and sometimes phosphorus and sulphur atoms joined together in very complicated chemical bonds. At the moment of death the spirit leaves the body and all that is left behind in the corpse is these elements or factually confusing:Vitamin C, now known as Ascorbic Acid is a white crystalline simple sugar .

Ideas popular in alternative circles about the power of antioxidants are extensively presented, though the author gives at least a token recognition to the fact that they are not recognised by mainstream medicine. Still, reliance on material from Patrick Holford (whose name appears 40 times in the text), a supplement-pill-seller and enlightened guru for some, a dangerous snake-oil salesman for others, is one of the biggest red flags for Cracking the Obesity Crisis.

To give the author due credit, McNally doesn't promote Holford's more extreme views uncritically, and recognises that they are at the least unproven and unlikely. Her approach to supplementation is more moderate than some nutritionists': it won't hurt but it might help. But citing studies without any references, especially ones that make extraordinary claims including vitamins C and E halving a risk of cancer, does not increase credibility of these sections of the book.

All this mixed-value nutrition information is presented in an extremely disorganised way, with repetition and without a clear structure. No table of contents and no index make it even harder to find anything.

Cracking the Obesity Crisis generally suffers from poor, at times very poor copy editing. Numerous typos, punctuation errors and several layout issues not only affect the reading experience, but significantly lower its credibility. This is amply demonstrated by the calorie count errors discussed above, typos in already quoted longer fragments and beauties such as nutrition and diabeties, appearance of a scientist called Linux Pauling, and a claim that the author's son is not entering his final year in an M.A.

All in all, the book's poor structure, lack of table of contents and index, poor if any copy-editing and a dubious set of moral and social beliefs about obesity and fat people are not redeemed by what's largely common-sense advice on weight loss. The recipes in the second half make a perfectly reasonable practical collection, but are pretty standard and lack consistent nutrition data or background information and are not chosen with any obvious underlying rationale. Where nutrition data is provided, it appears to be frequently wrong. I cannot recommend Cracking the Obesity Crisis, either as a practical aid to weight loss and healthy living or as an informative book on nutrition.

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