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Losing weight is not just about what diet we choose but about how our minds work,” said Alexander Chernev, associate professor of marketing and author of The Dieter’s Paradox.

Losing weight is not just about what diet we choose but about how our minds work,” said Alexander Chernev, Associate Professor of Marketing and author of The Dieter’s Paradox.

Why dieting makes us fat

In his new book, Associate Professor Alexander Chernev explains why dieters often undermine their own efforts to lose weight

By Sara Langen

8/25/2011 - Dieting these days seems like it should be easier than ever. Countless books, DVDs, fitness centers, pre-packaged food products and weight-loss programs are available to anyone looking to lose a few pounds. So why are Americans becoming increasingly obese?

Associate Professor of Marketing Alexander Chernev

Associate Professor of Marketing

Alexander Chernev

Kellogg Associate Professor of Marketing Alexander Chernev tackles this conundrum in his new book, The Dieter’s Paradox: Why Dieting Makes Us Fat (Cerebellum Press, September 2011).

“Losing weight is not just about what diet we choose but about how our minds work,” Chernev says. “Our irrational thinking and behavior often prevent us from achieving our goals.”

The book expands on Chernev’s ongoing research in the field of consumer behavior and decision-making. The Kellogg professor has shown that people tend to systematically underestimate the calories in their meals, believing that adding a healthy item to an unhealthy one will actually decrease a meal’s calorie count. People tend to believe that a cheeseburger combined with a side salad, for example, has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger considered by itself. Even more striking, those most concerned with their weight are also most prone to think that they can consume fewer calories simply by adding a healthy item to their meals.

Chernev explains how seven common misconceptions can derail our attempts to manage weight:

  • Stereotyping bias. We often classify foods as either vices or virtues and base our choices solely on those stereotypes instead of on their nutritional value and calorie content. 
  • Balancing bias. We mistakenly balance the intake of healthy and unhealthy foods, believing that we can cut calories simply by adding a healthy option to our meals. 
  • Unit bias. We often think of food in terms of units, meals and events and ignore the actual quantity consumed. 
  • Framing bias. We are easily influenced by the context in which we evaluate our meals. The same meal can appear more or less healthy depending on the other available options. 
  • Comparison bias. Our choices are swayed by comparisons; we think of the best available option as a good choice, even when it is not. 
  • Consistency bias. Our consumption behavior is inconsistent with our long-term weight-loss goals. 
  • Priority bias. We give priority to other goals — saving money and time, seeking social approval and managing stress — while shortchanging our weight-loss goals.

The Dieter’s Paradox discusses the reasons behind each bias and shows how our irrational behavior impacts our decisions — and our waistlines.

“It’s not simply a matter of deciding to diet,” Chernev explains. “Empirical data show that dieters often make worse food choices than those less focused on managing their weight. Even our sincerest motivation to diet will come up short if we fail to understand and overcome the irrational aspects of our consumption behavior."