Dieting as Moralization
July 17, 2012
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Since I spend way too much of my life making fun the paleo diet, I decided to give actually dieting a shot. Instead of assuming that mainstream nutritionists know absolutely nothing about what they’ve spent their lives studying, I’m just doing the things they say to do. We’ll see how it works out.
I’ve been at it a few weeks, and my method has been to use behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to play mental games with myself to avoiding cheating. For instance, when I eat something unhealthy, I consciously tell myself that does not imply that I should eat whatever I want (Ariely’s “What-the-hell effect”). I realized that the extent to which this method was working, I was giving myself a combination of heuristics and commitment devices to get myself to better approximate what mainstream nutrition says to do ideally.
Now how do I believe that paleo AND veganism “work” as diets? By giving people a better combination of heuristics and commitment devices to better approximate what mainstream nutrition says to do ideally.
If you eat paleo, you are throwing out a bunch of things that mainstream nutrition says are bad – e.g. white bread and other simple carbohydrates.
If you eat vegan, you are throwing out a bunch of things that mainstream nutrition says are bad – e.g. red meat and cheese.
What veganism and paleo both do is to create a moral narrative that gets people to successfully commit to eliminating a number of delicious things from their diets. “Meat is murder.” “Sugar is poison.” This is what the normal diets lack. It also explains why people who try seemingly opposite diets are both able to succeed with them. People don’t morally commit to anything to anything under normal diets.
When people use normal diets, hyperbolic discounting gets people to eat unhealthy food since they over-weight (no pun intended) the present at the expense of future health. But if you are morally committed to something like meat being murder or the idea of sugar as literal poison, hyperbolic discounting is a non-issue. People are very resistant to weighing costs and benefits when something moral is on one side of the equation, even when hyperbolic discounting is involved.
Paleo “works” not in the sense that it is a better approximation of the optimal diet than mainstream nutrition is. It works by successfully getting people to stop eating the entire bag of M&M’s because they’ve convinced themselves that sugar is poison.