What makes weight so easy to gain - and so hard to lose? Doctors say that it's because we consume too many calories and burn too few. True enough, but Dr. Alexander Chernev - a psychologist who specializes in consumer research - has a different take. He says eating plans and weight-loss diets are often doomed to failure in part because our "dumb ideas" about food and eating get in the way.
The good news? Knowing the errant thinking patterns is the key to overcoming them.
Hard to believe, but many people think that adding a healthful side dish - a green salad, some broccoli, or a few tomato slices - lowers the calorie content of a meal. The "side-salad fallacy" was shown in study conducted by Dr. Chernev in which some people were shown a lone cheeseburger and others were shown the same burger paired with a green salad. The burger-only group estimated, on average, that the burger contained 618 calories - compared to 544 calories for the burger-and-salad group. Thus, a burger plus a salad was judged to have 74 fewer calories than the burger alone!
Dumb idea #2: Carrot = healthful
Carrots are loaded with vitamins and low in calories - at least real ones are. Believe it or not, a recent study showed that a carrot cake with carrot-shaped decorative icing was deemed healthier and more diet-worthy than the undecorated cake - even though the carrot icing added sugar and calories.
Credit: Flickr/Isabelle Palatin
Dumb idea #3: "Healthful" foods are low-calorie foods
Certain foods have a "health halo" that leads people to think they're super-healthful. Think granola. Think bran muffins. In fact, while these and other healthy-seeming foods might be full of nutrients, they can also be full of calories. For example, one cup of granola with nuts can deliver more than 500 calories.
Dumb idea #4: Slim package = slim body
As clever marketers know all too well, shoppers often think that foods sold in "skinny" packages (thin in the middle) are more diet-friendly than meals in "fat" packages (wide in the middle). Of course, packaging has no relationship to how much fat a food contains, or how many calories.
Credit: Dr. Chernev
Dumb idea #5: Low-fat means low in calories
People often think of fat- and sugar-free foods as if they were also calorie-free. Yet these foods can contain even more calories than their "regular" counterparts. That's because removing fat from food can also remove flavor, so food makers often compensate by adding sugar (and calories). So, if you order a low-fat blueberry muffin with your morning coffee at Starbucks thinking it's a virtuous choice, you might be in for a surprise: The low-fat muffin has 430 calories - 50 calories more than the 'full-fat' one.
Credit: Flickr/Glory Foods
Dumb idea #6: Working out means it's okay to overeat
Think food is a well-deserved reward for putting in time at the gym? Fat chance. It's true that vigorous exercise burns calories, but studies show that people overestimate just how many. Studies show that running a mile, for example, is believed to burn about 450 calories, whereas in reality it burns only 110 or so calories - about one-quarter worth of a bran muffin.
Dumb idea #7: Choosing the lesser of two evils is good for a diet
Sure, a 230-calorie Reese's Pieces is more diet-friendly than that 280-calorie Twix bar. But neither is a particularly good choice if you're aiming for weight loss. Just because the food you choose is healthier than another food item doesn't mean it's a good choice.
Dumb idea #8: Snacks are fine if they're low-calorie
Those "100-calorie" snack packages may be a better alternative to high-calorie snacks. But that doesn't mean they're a waist-friendly choice. We're often led into eating more of snacks that we consider "safe." And, perversely, eating snacks from small packages can lead us to consume more since we don't consider each package to have a particularly consequential impact on our weight.
Dumb idea #9: Other people can decide what I eat
Whether it's a basket of bread brought to our restaurant table or the bowl of chips served by a friend, we're often quick to eat foods that others have "picked out" for us. But just because a food is "there" doesn't mean we have to eat it. We can always choose not to. In the words of 19th century psychologist William James, "When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice."
Dumb idea #10: Using large plates
People tend to pile more food onto large plates than small ones. That's because when it comes to portion size, few of us have a good idea of what the "right size" is. So, wittingly or unwittingly, we use the plate size as a reference. And since we tend to clean our plates, using large plates makes us eat more.
Dumb idea #11: Avoiding temptation makes it okay to indulge
We often reward ourselves simply for not giving in to temptation. For example, someone who walks past the ice cream parlor without going in might feel entitled to a reward (ironically, perhaps a scoop of the ice cream passed up earlier). Trouble is, the more temptations we resist, the more likely we are to indulge further down the road.
Dumb idea #12: Stocking up on discounted foods makes sense
Discounts can lead us to buy more than we really should - including items that we never intended to buy. Every week, millions of items in stores across the country go on sale. Every week, millions of people break their diets because they overbought to take advantage of all the discounts. The bottom line is that discounts all too often give us an excuse to indulge.
Dumb idea #13: Free food = free calories
Free food - dessert platters at parties, airline meals, and free samples in stores - encourages us to put our diets on hold. It's as if we believe that if we're not paying for a food, it doesn't contain any calories. Of course, that's not true.
Dumb idea #14: Stocking up the pantry
Scientists call it the "pantry effect" - our tendency to eat more when the food is handy. The effect is particularly strong for ready-to-eat foods, including cookies, chips, and other indulgent snacks.
Dumb idea #15: Buying in bulk always makes sense
If you're on a strict financial budget, buying in bulk might make sense. But if you're trying to budget your calories, bulk buying can backfire. Why? Because we tend to rely on the quantity available to determine how much of the food we should eat. The more food on hand, the more ends up on our plates (and in our stomachs).
Dumb idea #16: Servings trump portion size
Few of us actually measure how much food we eat. As a result, we tend to view our meals in terms of distinct units - a scoop, a plate, or a package. We obsess about eating one bowl of cereal, one sandwich, and one serving of fries, paying little or no attention to portion sizes. So we don't mind eating one double-sized scoop of ice cream but might feel guilty if we follow up one half-sized scoop with another half-sized serving.
Dumb idea #17: Your stomach can tell when you're full
Think your stomach can give you a reliable sense of when to stop eating? Think again. The stomach's "stretch receptors" take about 20 minutes to signal that it's full. This means there's a substantial time lag between the time we are full and the time our stomach informs us about it. In the absence of a signal from our stomachs, we keep eating and eating...