BOOK REVIEW: 'The Dieter's Paradox': A Psychologist Looks at Weight Loss and Tells Us Why Diets Are Guaranteed to Fail

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Dieter's Paradox': A Psychologist Looks at Weight Loss and Tells Us Why Diets Are Guaranteed to Fail
On doit manger pour vivre, et non vivre pour manger (one should eat to live, not live to eat)
-- Moliere, French playwright

If you're seeking a diet book, Alexander Chernev's "The Dieter's Paradox: Why Dieting Makes Us Fat" (Cerebellum Press, 220 pages, $15.95) look elsewhere. But if you're intrigued by the psychological aspects of dieting and weight loss, this book by a professor of marketing at Northwestern University is a winner.
For those who want to find a dieting book in Chernev's treatise, the takeaway seems to be what he calls his seven "decision errors or biases"  beginning on Page 169 (I'll list them shortly). It makes sense for a professor of marketing to be a Ph.D in psychology, which Chernev is: One of his two doctorates is in psychology, the other is in business administration.


Both  disciplines collide in a phrase that turns out to be obvious -- once you think about it:  Marketing tries to convince us that some foods and some restaurants are more "virtuous" than others, with Subway trumping McDonald's, for instance. Of course, we find that, in the words of the song from "Porgy and Bess" "It ain't necessarily so." Be prepared to see many brand names in this book. Dare I paraphrase the old saying about statistics: "Liars, damned liars, and marketers"?
Despite the presence of a wealth of products—from staples like milk to indulgences like cookies and ice cream— appearing in a dizzying array of fat-free, sugar-free, low-calorie, or “light” versions, obesity rates in the U.S. have steadily climbed to such levels that it has been proclaimed a national epidemic, Chernev writes. The "lighter" we get in food terminology, the heavier we really get.
Alexander Chernev
Alexander Chernev


Chernev adds that the watchdogs of public health — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — estimate that as many as two-thirds of adult Americans are considered overweight or outright obese. Apparently, despite our dieting efforts -- or maybe because of them -- we are steadily gaining weight. The number of diets, diet books, and diet-related TV and radio programs has also increased exponentially. Calorie information has become readily available for most packaged foods, and restaurants are following suit. By all evidence we are on the right track to become a fit and trim nation. The only problem is: WE AREN'T!

We could cut through a lot of bullshit, to use the title of Penn & Teller's wonderful show  (which I recall dealt with dieting in one episode) by just copying the Europeans, especially the French and the Dutch and slow down as we eat -- and EAT SMALLER PORTIONS. Simply put, Americans wolf down food as if there is no tomorrow and our portions are way to big, Chernev says.


 A good example cited by Chernev is a restaurant in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, AZ, called The Heart Attack Grill, "home of the 8,000 calorie  Quadruple Bypass Burger" served by waitresses dressed like nurses. Super sizing has also been covered admirably in Morgan Spurlock's wonderful documentary film "Super Size Me." (IMdb link to Parkersburg, WV native Spurlock: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1041597).



Despite Moliere's words in the epigraph to this review, which appears on Page 169 of Chernev's book, my impression is that the French DO live to eat, only they eat tiny portions compared with Americans. Backing this up is the best-selling French-born author Mireille Guiliano, author of the delightful  "French Women Don't Get Fat: (for my review: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/events/050206-kinchen-bookreview.html).

OK, here are the seven rules, or decision errors or biases, as the good doctor calls them

1. Stereotyping bias: We classify foods as either vices or virtues and base our choices on these stereotypes instead of nutritional value and calorie content.

2. Balancing bias: We try to balance the intake of healthy and unhealthy foods, believing we can lose weight by simply adding  a healthy option (like a side salad) to our meals. Chernev devotes plenty of space to what he calls the "side salad illusion" (I spotted a typo on Page 35 where "size" is substituted for "side". This may or may not be a Freudian slip!). Chernev also neglected to comment on how high calorie salad dressing can "super size" a virtuous salad, turning it into a vice,

3. Unit bias: We tend to think of food in terms of units, meals, and events and ignore the actual quantity consumed.

4. Framing bias: We are easily influenced by the way food options are presented to us.

5. Comparison bias: Our food choices are swayed by the other available items, compelling us to think that we are making good decisions, even when we are not.

6. Consistency bias: Our daily actions are inconsistent with our long-term goals.

7. Priority bias: We give priority to other goals, such as saving money and time, seeking social approval and managing stress.

Why are these seven items so important, you ask, and Chernev answers: 

"Understanding our decision biases is the first step toward adopting a more effective approach to dieting. The next step is to convert this knowledge to action in order to overcome these biases in our thinking and behavior."
This sounds very much like the AA Serenity Prayer, written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.


I repeat, if you're looking for a diet book, with specific recommendations on foods to eat and foods to avoid, Chernev's book is  not the one. If, however, you want to start knocking down the obstacles on your road to weight loss, he provides sound advice for those seeking "courage to change the things I can..."

About the Author

Alexander Chernev
is a psychologist who is studying how people make choices. He holds two doctoral degrees: a Ph.D. in Psychology from Sofia University in his native Bulgaria,  and a second Ph.D. in Business Administration from Duke University in North Carolina. He is a marketing professor at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois where he teaches behavioral decision theory, marketing management and strategy, and consumer research. He is not on a diet but often adds a healthy option to his meals. Living in the Chicago area, with its wealth of tasty and fattening foods -- including but not limited to its famous deep-dish pizza -- he is often tempted to walk down the path of bad choices.  His website: www.DietersParadox.com.
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