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Greg Critser, author who wrote about obesity, drugs and aging, dies at 63

Greg Critser, author who wrote about obesity, drugs and aging, dies at 63
Greg Critser wrote books that touched on health, happiness and the hapless pursuit of immortality. (Antoinette Mongelli)

Greg Critser, a Pasadena-based writer who explored fear and obsession in books about obesity, prescription drugs and aging, has died after a years-long fight with brain cancer. He was 63.

Critser wrote well-regarded books that he referred to as "my American pathology trilogy" — books that touched on health, happiness (or its opposite) and the hapless pursuit of immortality.

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The books, Critser said, all wrestled with personal demons — he once was overweight, he tangled with depression and as the years passed he felt himself slowing down.

"Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World" was at the time a sobering look at how the fast-food industry had become an enabler of obesity by offering "supersized meals" that conditioned people to eat more fries, order bigger burgers and drink virtual vats of soda for modest prices.

He traced the roots of the emerging epidemic back to the Nixon administration and the decision to ease regulations on corn and staples such as palm oil, opening an avenue for the mass production of low-cost sweeteners.

The 2003 book became a bestseller and was identified by the American Diabetes Assn. as the "definitive journalist account of the modern obesity epidemic."

In a 2010 interview with The Times, Critser said his own struggles — such as once being 40 pounds overweight — would typically lead to months of research. Drawn down a rabbit hole, he said, he would absorb himself looking into everything from hormone replacement therapy to calorie restriction to tissue engineering.

Another book, "Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Minds, Lives and Bodies," examined how drug companies had shifted from being science-driven enterprises to mass producers of consumer goods.

If they were once inclined to develop new and better drugs, they were now obsessed with identifying new and better ways to sell drugs, he concluded in the 2005 book.

Critser said he sometimes used himself as a guinea pig while reporting, trying products or therapies.

He said he experimented with testosterone while working on "Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging," his 2010 book on the pursuit of immortality. The hormone treatment gave him more energy and the impression that his cognitive skills were heightened. But it was short-lived.

Critser said his best lesson may have been learned from a 112-year-old man he met during his research. His secret to long life? Hanging out with young people.

So Critser, who had no children, filled his Pasadena home with visitors. "I try to cram my literary tastes down my nephews' throats," he joked.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio, on July 18, 1954, Critser earned a bachelor's degree from Occidental College and a master's in history from UCLA.

His work frequently appeared in national publications, including the New Yorker and the Atlantic and newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Times of London. He was part of the original editorial team at the Pasadena Weekly.

He also taught science writing classes at Caltech and USC, lectured and teamed up with a personal trainer on a series of weight-loss and training books.

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Critser is survived by his wife, Antoinette Mongelli; mother, Betty Critser Newman; and two sisters, Barbara Spence and Linda Critser.

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