Review: Anxious Eaters

Janet Chrzan and Kima Cargill Anxious Eaters: Why We Fall for Fad Diets. Columbia University Press. New York: 2022. ISBN # 9780231192446

Emily Contois (The University of Tulsa)

I wrote this book review in late January, a time when most people who make New Year’s resolutions have already abandoned them. Despite their typically short-lived nature, food-related pledges are how many eaters kick off each calendar year. Filled with hope, these resolute eaters try a new diet, one that promises miracles of weight loss, energy, rejuvenation, and reinvention that are highly unlikely to materialize. Why, then, do so many eaters fall susceptible to fad diets and on such a regular basis? Co-authors Janet Chrzan and Kima Cargill offer a simple but powerful answer in their new book, Anxious Eaters: Why We Fall for Fad Diets. Within American food culture, fad diets make sense.

To begin, what are fad diets? In their introduction, Chrzan (who is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania) and Cargill (who is Professor of Psychology at University of Washington, Tacoma) write, “There is no single definition of a fad diet, but we generally understand a fad diet to be a novelty diet that makes big promises and often has little scientific evidence supporting it or in many cases is supported by debunked science or pseudoscientific claims” (p. 6). Building upon this, they further define fad diets by their cyclical nature, as they come in and out of fashion, rising to popularity for a short time (p. 6), and by their celebrity founders, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who dieters come to view as “icons of aspiration” (p. 7). “Fad diet” is thus a capacious and flexible term for the type of cultural and commercial eating patterns Chrzan and Cargill seek to analyze.

Diets often focus on food’s content — components like fat and carbohydrates, cholesterol and sodium — but Chrzan and Cargill unpack the meaning of diets by focusing on their context (p. 25). Indeed, the abundance of American food culture, long celebrated as a national virtue and value, can be a double-edged sword. Abundant branded food (some that is perhaps less “healthy”) and abundant food information (at times contradictory and conflicting) make food confusing and overwhelming for many eaters (p. 17). At the same time, neoliberal expectations to take personal responsibility for one’s health collide with a perhaps supremely American preoccupation with individuality, personal control, self-discipline, progress, perfection, and faith in market-based solutions (p. 20-23). This confluence of factors ups the stakes of dietary choices. Eating well can be difficult. Being thin can be next to impossible for some people. But American culture considers both incredibly important. Within this context, Chrzan and Cargill argue, fad diets make logical, rational sense, both culturally and psychologically.

In Chapter 1, Chrzan and Cargill clearly state another hallmark of diets that often goes unsaid: “The same fears, beliefs, and fantasies underpin nearly all diets, even when the diets appear radically different” (italics original, p. 19), a claim that the authors apply to not only our present food moment but also “across historical eras” (p. 19). The rest of the first chapter lays out the key concepts and “universal truths” of fad diets. These include: American individualism and obsession with self-control, the connections between the thin body and nationalized ideas of moral citizenship, generalized food anxieties, how consumerism fuels faddish eating, poverty’s connection to obesity, how secularization made diets a religion, pseudoscience’s dominant presence in fad diets, and how social alienation also fuels fad diet solutions. In this chapter, the authors also write, “this volume isn’t about fat, obesity, race, or ethnicity” (p. 31) as they seek to distill a more universalized analysis of fad diets. The book does discuss these elements at some points, but it does not focus on them. Such omissions will feel like grave mistakes to scholars who center these social structures and systems of oppression and privilege within the history, theory, and analysis of diet culture.

In Chapters 2 through 5, the authors analyze four common types of fad diets: food removal diets (which typically limit a particular macronutrient like fats or carbohydrates), food addiction (which views eaters as addicted to, or triggered/afflicted by, a particular food or ingredient that must be avoided), clean eating (which seeks to avoid toxins or perceived food impurities), and paleo diets (which purport to follow an ancient preagricultural eating pattern rather than a modern diet). In each chapter, Chrzan and Cargill weigh the evidence and arguments for and against each diet type. In each case, they show how and why the diets still make cultural and psychological sense to those who choose to follow them, as well as believe in them, at least for a time.

For scholars of diets and diet culture, these chapters don’t necessarily provide any new findings, though the authors’ consideration of the consumer frame of food addiction as “a folk construction” that everyday eaters use to explain their food insensitivities and struggles in ways that diverge from biomedical diagnoses was quite well taken. For eaters seduced by fad diets, however, these chapters could provide the information and empathy necessary to find new ways to think about and consume food.

The authors conclude with a “Final Thoughts” chapter, which argues that fad diets aren’t about food, but about a host of others things, which the authors summarize in short sections: identity, status, purity, control, convergence, magical thinking, and self-transformation. 

The book benefits from the interdisciplinary partnership between the co-authors, who bring to the table complementary specialties in anthropology, nutrition, and psychology, each united by food studies’ emphasis upon food culture, history, and systems. The body chapters are a touch wordy and over-written, but the prose throughout the book is highly accessible for undergraduate and general readers. Overall, Anxious Eaters is a testament to cross-disciplinary collaboration for interpreting contemporary diet culture and for helping eaters to understand why we fall for fad diets, as part of a process of breaking free from their appeals.

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