How salads and phone numbers can make us gain weight

Posted on February 13, 2012

(Last Updated On: January 5, 2018)

The Dieter’s Paradox: How dieting makes us fat is a book by Alexander Chernev detailing how conventional diet wisdom can actually cause us to gain weight. Below are various quotes from the book along with my commentary.

“America surpasses all countries in number of diet products, weight-loss books, and radio and television shows. Yet, it also has the highest proportion of overweight individuals.”

“This is the dieter’s paradox in a nutshell: Dieting promotes weight gain.”

Chernev inserts a great point at this juncture: Many are going to read the above sentence and immediately go, “Oh but my friend Mary lost x amount of pounds on y diet.” Thus, in their head, if so and so lost weight on y diet, dieting does work.

Well, why didn’t you lose any weight on that same diet?

Point being we are looking at the majority here. Using one exception does not make a case. Most diets fail for most people. We’re concerned with most people, not Mary.

“What’s really mystifying is that the reason why our dieting efforts fail is not a lack of motivation. The empirical evidence shows that those most concerned with their weight often end up making much worse choices than the average person.”

> Wow. Considering all you ever hear from people looking to lose weight, or do anything for that matter, is “I need to try harder, I need to be more motivated, etc.” this should come across as profound. Chernev goes on to illustrate various ways those most motivated with weight-loss make worse decisions.

“We tend to over-rely on the names of foods to infer their nutritional content.”

“Thinking in good-bad stereotypes also comes at the expense of paying attention to food quantity.”

>When given the option of a snickers miniature bar versus a cup of 1% cottage cheese with a carrot and pear, people believe the snickers bar will cause more weight gain than the cottage cheese snack. This is despite the fact the cottage cheese snack has 500 more calories in it!

I think people are getting better when it comes to this. I hear pretty often from clients how the salads they get can have more calories than the “unhealthy” fried chicken strips. They are at least somewhat aware ordering a salad does not absolve them from eating too much.

It’s important to remember the context in which a particular food is eaten. If eating a bag of m&ms everyday keeps you from eating crappy the rest of the day, you can make an argument m&ms are healthy. The most important thing when considering what’s healthy is to consider what will allow you to lose weight and keep it off. You’re going to be a lot healthier if you lose that extra 50 lbs and eat some snicker bars every now and then as opposed to you are 50 pounds overweight but eating 3 salads a day (next to your cheeseburgers).


Halo effect:

This was awesome. Two groups of people are given a “Paradise Burger.” One group is told the company, Paradise Burgers, gives some of their profits to charity. Another group is not told this.

The group told Paradise Burger’s engages in charitable donations ends up believing their burger has 15% less calories than the group not told this!

This just shows you how clueless people truly are when estimating how much they eat.

Stating your company gives to charities also causes people to perceive your food / drink as better tasting too. Now you know why you see that line at the bottom of your menu, “5% of all proceeds go to charity”: It causes you to think the restaurant’s food is better than it is. Thus, you probably eat more of it.


The coffee study:

This study elucidates how we may make food decisions based on how others will perceive us.

Two women check out at the grocery store. Say they have 10 items each. 9 out of the 10 items are the same. (There is only 1 different item between them.) One woman has instant coffee; the other has drip ground coffee. How are these women perceived?

4% of people think the drip ground coffee woman is lazy, 12% think she is a poor planner, but nobody thinks she is a bad wife.

In contrast, nearly 50% of people think the instant coffee woman is lazy and a poor planner, and 16% think she is a bad wife!

I am nearly speechless. I mean, I can be a superficial person, but this is too much. How can we make such strong judgments on things like this? It’s like a Seinfeld episode: “She had man hands…She eats her peas one at a time…”

Man, humans are assholes.


The Salad Illusion:

This is a big theme in the book. Succinctly: Take two people, one eats a bic mac; one eats a big mac and a salad. The second person will think they at less than the first person. Adding food to their meal made them think they ate less! By 14%.

The reason for this is the salad. Chernev has found this to be the case with not just salads, but add a “healthy” ingredient to an unhealthy food and we somehow rationalize it as having less calories than it would otherwise.

I certainly wasn’t aware of this, and I’m very glad I am now. It gives me some numbers to spew to my clients. However, after helping people out with their diets the last few years, I can’t say I’m surprised. Our ability to rationalize, anything, is amazing.

This information further affirms my belief people need to spend some time counting their calories. No more saying, “I think I’m eating well, I think I’m eating less, I think I think I think.” You need to KNOW. And no matter what you say, you have no idea how much you’re really eating.

Something else I didn’t know: Chernev mentions this effect is strongest in those who are most weight conscious. This forms some of the inspiration for the “Paradox” portion of the title name. That is, those who are most conscious about what they are eating, those who are trying hardest to lose weight, those who you think would know their stuff more than others….are those who are most likely to underestimate how much they are eating.

Chernev has a theory for why this occurs, and I won’t spoil it, (get the book!), however I figured I’d throw my two cents in: Our bodies know a hell of lot more than we give them credit for. For some reason we seem to think our minds always know better than a bagillion years of evolution.

Not everything we do is conscious though. We don’t say to ourselves, “Ok, that person over there, they’re tall, they have good skin, they look healthy, they don’t walk with a limp, etc.” We say, “That person is attractive.” We don’t have to go over every single detail that might make a person attractive and then deliberate. When someone walks in the door, you know if you think they’re physically attractive or not. Like I’m attracted to blonde women. Being from New Jersey, there aren’t that many of them. Well, that’s too bad for me. I can’t make myself prefer brunette women who fist pump. (Or you can move to Southern California, where everyone says blondes are everywhere, only to realize most of them are fake blonde. Whatever. I’m not bitter.) We simply don’t have control over as much as we think. And we have to accept that.

I think this is part of what’s going on with eating. We may want to lose weight, look better, etc. but our body is saying, “Uhh, dude, where’s the food?” We’ve evolved to be damn good at wanting food, otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. I think this is one scenario where our bodies may be tricking our minds. Or maybe our subconscious mind is tricking our conscious mind. If that even makes sense. Moving on.


More about shapes:

I talked about this in my post on Mindless Eating. Chernev has some neat tidbits too:

For those who are weight conscious, you are likely to think a skinny can of soup has less calories than a fat can of soup, when both have the same amount of soup in them! Chernev opines this has to do with the fact that because a weight conscious person wants to be skinny, they see the skinny can as more favorable. This effect is also noted when flipping a bottle upside down so that instead of the fat portion of the bottle being at the bottom (like where most people store their fat), it is at the top (it’d be like shoulder height on a person, or a place where we never think of storing fat). Think pear shaped versus athletic shaped.

In other words, take a bottle of mayo; flip it upside down, people think it now has less calories.


French fries and phone numbers:

The point of this study was to examine whether irrelevant information impacted how many calories a person would think was in a food.

People were asked to write down the last three digits of their phone number and then estimate how many calories a serving of French fries contained. For those who whose phone number was between 0 and 200, they estimated 340 calories. For those whose phone number was between 800 and 999, they estimated 568 calories. An increase of 67%!

This just further illustrates how many things can influence how much we eat. Things that are out of our control and or things we just aren’t aware of. Say you’re heading towards the drive through. Hearing some random numbers on the radio before you drive through could alter how much you order by altering how many calories you think the foods have. And it would happen with you having no idea, and when you have no idea, you can’t combat it.


Comparison bias:

If confronted with two snacks, one a 1000 calories and one 500 calories, and you choose the 500 calorie snack, you’re likely to think you made a healthy choice. Meanwhile you only had 200 calories left to eat for the day and you still just ate 500 calories of chocolate. However, in your head, because you resisted a temptation you rewarded yourself by feeling good about the fact you ate the lesser of two evils. You should have just not eaten either though.

This is common behavior I see in people who, for the absolute life of them, swear up and down they are eating “right” but still not losing weight. These are the “my thyroid is messed up” crowd.

Another thing you see with this group is they will eat well 5 days out of the week (Monday through Friday), but go hog-freakin-wild on the weekend. They go so overboard they screw up all the good they did Monday through Friday. Another example is being good 90% of the day, but buffet time starts at 9pm when you turn on the TV. In both scenarios, because the person is eating healthy more often compared to how often they don’t eat healthy, they truly believe they “aren’t eating that much”

Physics doesn’t care what you believe. And you are not an anomaly. You are eating more than you think or want to admit. Stop thinking you know how much you eat and start knowing.

“Writing down our goals greatly enhances the chance of converting our commitment to action.”

> 76% of people who write down their goals achieve them compared to 43% who only think about their goals.

For my weight-loss clients, they now know why once a week they have to write down their weight-loss goal and how their goal is doing. It’s a cheap way to increase the odds of them successfully reaching their goal.

Ironically enough, Chernev mentions how writing your goal down seems to make people feel more accountable. I’ve noticed some clients who simply refuse to write their goal down. They come up with all sorts of reasons for doing so. Maybe they forgot, or they’re embarrassed (even though I put them in alphabetical order by initials so nobody knows who anybody is), or they decide weight-loss isn’t their primary goal all of a sudden. It’s almost like these people intuitively know that by writing their goal down they are actually going to have to commit to it. Which increases the work they’ll have to do.

These people rarely do well weight-loss wise.

Contrast this with other people who love having to write things down weekly, they get on me if I need to print a new sheet for them, it’s the first thing they do when they come to the gym, etc. These people always do well.

“Instead of fighting temptation we might be better off avoiding it all together.”

“The best way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

>In the “White Bear” experiment those asked to not think about a white bear end up thinking about a white bear more often than those asked to think about one. It’s like when your parents told you you couldn’t have or do something. You ended up wanting to do that thing even more.

Picking a diet where you are forbidden certain foods will only cause you to want those foods even more! If you start a diet where you are disallowed certain foods, foods you really enjoy, like ice cream, you might as well just head over to Cold Stone and try every single topping they have. It’s going to happen sooner than later; might as well get it over with.

It’s much better to go on a diet where you have a system that allows you to eat those foods regularly. You may not still be able to eat them every day, but you can certainly come up with a plan that allows you to still have them once or twice a week.

Succumbing to eating ice cream or pizza once a week doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a normal human.


Speed of eating: 

Chernev quotes some numbers comparing how fast Americans eat compared to the French. We average 14 minutes eating in McDonald’s compared to 22 minutes for the French. On average, the French spend nearly twice as much time per day on eating and snacking than we do. Yet, we’re much more overweight than they are.

There is a ton more in the book and I highly suggest it for anyone interested in weight-loss. You can pick it up here,

The Dieter’s Paradox: Why Dieting Makes Us Fat


Need help getting in shape? This is the place to go.


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