UW News

February 14, 2023

New faculty books: Fad diets, how inequality leads to poor health and more

Three books spread on a wooden table with covers facing up.

Recent and upcoming books from the University of Washington include those from the division of Social, Behavioral and Human Sciences at UW Tacoma, the School of Public Health and the Jackson School of International Studies.

Four new faculty books from the University of Washington cover topics ranging from inequality’s effects on health to fad diets to former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s legacy on gender equality. UW News talked with the authors to learn more about their recent publications.

Kima Cargill’s ‘Anxious Eaters’ analyzes the appeal of fad diets

Most everyone has heard of fad diets: the kind that promise results with an ostensibly simple solution, whether a daily pill or a long-term meal plan.

Not to mention the “lifestyle” approaches to eating that aren’t just about weight loss: Think paleo, keto, all-organic, no-sugar, low-carb. Whatever the formula, diets tend to promote a slimmer, healthier, happier life.

But what they’re really doing, argues Kima Cargill, professor of psychology at University of Washington Tacoma, is tapping into people’s larger worries about and desires for identity, status and transformation.

In their new book, “Anxious Eaters: Why We Fall for Fad Diets,” Cargill and co-author Janet Chrzan dive into the types of diets, what they promise and what they yield, with some surprising finds. The early patriotic messages about weight loss, for example, or the politics around some fad diets today.

Published in 2022 by Columbia University Press, “Anxious Eaters” was the product of a long collaboration with Chrzan, an adjunct assistant professor of nutritional anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Cargill focuses on the psychological and sociocultural issues around overeating, and teaches a class at UW Tacoma called “The Psychology of Food and Culture.”

“When we first started writing the book, we knew we wanted to write about specific named diets, like paleo or ‘clean eating,’ because that’s how people think about them. Yet as we wrote, we found ourselves often repeating our ideas chapter after chapter, which reinforced one of our strongest observations,” Cargill said. “That same set of fears, beliefs and fantasies drive nearly all fad diets, even when the diets appear radically different. They are a lot like get-rich-quick schemes: There are always certain things about them that remain true.”

Cargill and Chrzan see common themes that drive interest in fad diets: the typically American beliefs in individualism and willpower; the desire for self-transformation; and the role of consumerism. Ads, testimonials, before-and-after photos – all the stuff of fad diets.

“We believe we can transform ourselves, that if I just sign up for this thing and pay a lot of money, I’ll be transformed,” Cargill said. “At its core the book is quite philosophical, more about the wishes and fantasies we have, than about the diets themselves.”

The authors aimed to give readers tools with which to analyze diets, not to cast judgment or recommend one diet over another.

Ultimately, losing weight – if that’s the goal – is about changing habits and behaviors. “For most people, the only diet that really works is eating a little less than you do now, in perpetuity. Just eat a little less food, every day, forever,” Cargill said. “It’s deceptively simple, but it takes a long time.”

For more information, contact Cargill at kcargill@uw.edu.

How inequality in US leads to poor health

The United States spends more on health care than any other country, but a United Nations Human Development Report released in September revealed that the U.S. ranks 44th in life expectancy among U.N. countries. That number drops even lower when non-U.N. countries are included.

Dr. Stephen Bezruchka, associate teaching professor emeritus of health systems and population health at the University of Washington, examines this contradiction in his new book, “Inequality Kills Us All: COVID-19’s Health Lessons for the World.” Published by Rutledge in November, the book examines why the U.S. performs so poorly in health measures.

The answer isn’t lack of health care, as the U.S. spends as much on health care as the rest of the world combined. And Bezruchka said studies show that personal choices, such as smoking and diet, don’t make a significant impact on a country’s average life expectancy.

“I learned that social factors and political factors really matter more than medical care and personal behaviors,” Bezruchka said. “A few things just hit me in the face. Namely, the longest-lived country is Japan, and they have two, three times as many men smoking there as we do.”

The greatest risk factor, Bezruchka argues, is inequality.

“Inequality is bad for you,” Bezruchka said. “As a matter of fact, it kills you. It kills us all. We have a lot of rich people in this country, and they’re healthier than poor people. That’s always the case. Is there any way to escape inequality? Living in the United States, the answer is no.”

Studies show that roughly half a person’s health as an adult is programmed in the first 1,000 days after conception, Bezruchka said. Healthier countries offer benefits that impact early life, such as parental leave. The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only U.N. countries that don’t require paid time off for new parents.

Other policies that help eliminate inequality include a fair taxation system, monthly child support payments, universal health care and guaranteed income. The U.S. focuses more on late-life programs, such as Social Security.

“In the United States, we have 70, 80 million people who either have no health care insurance or are vastly underinsured,” said Bezruchka, who spent more than 10 years in Nepal working in health programs. “The leading cause of bankruptcy in this country is inability to pay health care costs.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed these issues. Studies have shown that more economic inequality leads to higher overall death rates from COVID, Bezruchka said, and the U.S. has highest number of recorded COVID deaths in the world.

Social determinants of health include racism, poverty, pollution, education, income and wealth. These factors stem from political context and governance, Bezruchka said. They are also among the leading causes of stress.

“I call stress the 21st-century tobacco,” Bezruchka said. “The U.S. offers individual solutions for stress and powerlessness. We get people to blame themselves for poor health instead of blaming the system. The book tries to make people recognize the system.”

For more information, contact Bezruchka at sabez@uw.edu.

Angela Merkel ‘led from behind’ on gender equality

Even after 16 years as the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel’s legacy on gender equality in politics remains a mystery. To help rectify that, eight social scientists, feminists and gender scholars came together to write “Leading from Behind – Gender Equality in Germany During the Merkel Era.”

Sabine Lang, professor of international and European studies at the UW Jackson School of International Studies, initiated, co-edited and co-wrote a chapter for this project. It was written and edited with collaborators meeting on Zoom from countries around the world in an intense, two-year process.

Published by Routledge in December, the book investigates how Merkel, during her four governing periods, impacted gender equality policy in Germany and across Europe. Being the leader of a conservative party and a trained physicist from the former German Democratic Republic, or Communist East Germany, she initially did not see herself as a Western-style feminist.

“One of the puzzles about Merkel’s legacy is that a lot of change happened in terms of German gender policy despite her being a conservative woman from a Christian conservative party, and despite her coming into office with really not a feminist agenda at all,” Lang said. “So how did she manage to get her own party on track for the policy changes that we saw in those 16 years?”

One of the authors’ central findings, which led to the book’s title, is that Merkel often didn’t lead overtly in gender politics. Instead, she reacted to pressure from her social democratic coalition partners and from the level of the European Union in Brussels. She also allowed public opinion to inform her policy choice, such as in the passing of the German Marriage Equality Act.

Lang and her chapter co-author, Petra Ahrens from Tampere University in Finland, studied how the voluntary quota policies of the Christian Democratic Union evolved under Merkel’s reign from mere afterthoughts to a central demand of their women’s association.

“A fair number of German parties have quotas with which they promote women to higher positions on electoral lists or in party office — but the conservatives historically did not have a fixed quota,” Lang said. “Now, at the end of Merkel’s reign, they are starting to employ a gender quota and that was of interest to us. How did she get the party to see that there was no other choice but to take regulatory mechanisms into account?”

The answer, the authors argue, is through “leading from behind.” While Merkel remained non-committal, she allowed space for others to push for tougher gender quotas.

“She showcased impressive advances in gender policies, but she facilitated more than that she led,” Lang said. “That is why we need to see this legacy as mixed.”

For more information, contact Lang at salang@uw.edu.