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Under The Microscope

THE FATS OF LIFE by Caroline M. Pond; Cambridge University Press, 1998; 337 pp; $48.85 paperback

Reviewed by Carol Stewart

This book, a kind of eulogy to fats and their multifarious functions in biological systems, aims to "fill the gap between unscientific comments about the hazards and benefits of high-fat or low-fat diets and weight control found in magazines, and technical and medical reports about lipid biochemistry and obesity".

The author, a Reader in Biology, has evidently devoted much of her professional life to the study of fats. She has marshalled an impressive array of evidence from such diverse fields as biochemistry, comparative anatomy, archaeology and evolutionary biology to redress the bad press that fat suffers. The resulting book is dense, complex, scholarly and not really for the faint-hearted: the reader must be prepared to grapple with technical terms such as "popliteal", "pre-adipocyte" and "chylomicron". A little more effort to translate the key concepts and findings into more accessible terms for the general reader is required.

The discussion ranges widely throughout the animal kingdom, and from the familiar to the obscure. Most of us are aware of the role of fats as energy reserves for migrating and hibernating animals, as insulation against polar temperatures, and as cushioning for sensitive body parts.

Less well known is that fats may also be vital to the functioning of our immune system. Not only are the distributions of lymph nodes and fatty tissues closely related, but Pond's own research has shown that the manufacture of immune cells appears to rely on the presence of these localised supplies of essential fatty acids. It's an interesting point that physicians and scientists may have become so preoccupied with how fat causes disease that they may be overlooking its role in disease prevention.

One minor quibble is that the discussion on fat and health doesn't seem to discriminate between degrees of fatness in a useful way. People are classified only as "obese" or otherwise, and there is little exploration of the interesting territory in between that many of us surely occupy. There seems to be a misalignment between the claim that a third of people in Western countries may be obese, and the rather alarming statements on the health effects lying in wait for those in this category.

One could not hope to find a more comprehensive essay on fats and fatness. And yet I felt that this book only succeeded partially on its own terms, as the territory it occupies is solidly scientific with very few concessions offered to those who do take serious advice on diets and health from the magazines at the supermarket checkout.

It will make a valuable addition to the bookshelves of biology students and teachers, and those with a professional interest in nutrition, but may be of fairly slender interest to the general reader.

Carol Stewart is currently on leave from the School of Marine and Environmental Science at Auckland University and has an interest in conservation issues.