The behaviors that affect weight can be explained by economic theories — according to formerly obese economists who lost 120 pounds in 18 months

Forget dieting books.

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Forget dieting books.
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Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

  • Many people struggle with losing weight.
  • In “The Economists’ Diet,” two formerly obese economists say it all comes down to understanding fundamental economic theories.
  • Their tips include weighing yourself every day and minimizing variety in your diet.

If you’ve been struggling to lose weight, Christopher Payne and Rob Barnett have a simple suggestion: a “self-imposed eating austerity program.”

Think of it as something akin to financial austerity, except instead of a country making spending cuts, it’s you cutting calories from your diet.

The phrase appears in Payne and Barnett’s book, “The Economists’ Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off.” Payne and Barnett are formerly obese economists, and they guide readers in using a similar approach to the one they used to lose a collective 120 pounds in 18 months.

That approach is heavily influenced by fundamental theories of economics and behavioral economics.

Combat the effects of scarcity by weighing yourself every day

Having scarce resources often leads to bad or irrational decision-making. So you need a powerful psychological device to keep you focused on your goal.

Drawing on the work of behavioral economists Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, authors of “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” Payne and Barnett argue that when you’re hungry (as in, when you’re dieting), you’re likelier to make poor food choices.

The only way to escape this “tunnel vision,” where all you can think about is food, is to weigh yourself every day, the authors say. That way, you’ll have the number in mind to help you resist temptations when they inevitably arise.

Note that this advice in particular is controversial: Moran Cerf, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management who has been studying decision-making for over a decade, told Business Insider’s Chris Weller that people should weigh themselves just once a week. Your weight can fluctuate by a few pounds every day, Cerf said, and stepping on the scale so often can cause confusion.

Isolate the signal from the noise by being conscious of calories without counting them

You don’t need all available data – you just need one piece of data that serves as a signal for the rest.

The authors use an example of how mom-and-pop stores maintain a supply of bread to illustrate the limits of data. The stores don’t need to know things like “the state of the wheat market, food processing techniques, supply logistics, and macroeconomic demand conditions.”

Instead, “all they must know is how much their supplier is charging them for the bread. Soon thereafter, they’ll find out how many loaves they sell each day and therefore how many loaves to buy from the supplier.”

The price, as one Austrian economist put it, is a “signal” that contains lots of other information.

For dieters, that means you don’t need to know every piece of nutritional information about everything you consume. In fact, you don’t need to know the exact caloric information for everything you consume.

All you need to do is check calorie data every so often so you can estimate roughly how many calories are in different types of food. Then you’ll realize that a grande Americano with nonfat milk, to use the authors’ example, is generally a better option than a grande cafe latte with whole milk from Starbucks.

Use your ‘System 2’ to evaluate everything you read on food packaging

We generally process information either intuitively or analytically – and the intuitive approach can sometimes lead us to the wrong solution.

In his best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two “systems,” or ways of processing information. System 1 processes things intuitively and relatively quickly. System 2 is more analytical and takes a slower approach.

When you see a label that says “low fat,” you might be inclined to gobble it down and feel great about yourself, the authors write. That’s System 1 at work.

In reality, the snack may be lower in fat than some other snacks, but still relatively high in fat and calories. When you stop and realize that, you’re using System 2.

Harness the power of the law of diminishing returns by minimizing variety in your diet

The more you have of something, the less valuable it becomes.

“The more we have of something, the less satisfaction gained from each successive unit,” the authors write. This, in economic-speak, is the law of diminishing returns: It’s why higher quantity leads to lower prices.

You can apply this logic to eating as well: The satisfaction you get from consuming the 100th Oreo is nothing near the satisfaction you get from consuming the first. At this point, the Oreo’s “marginal utility” is near zero.

That’s why the authors argue for eating the same, or at least similar, foods every day. You’ll be much less inclined to overeat because the novelty and stimulation will gradually wear off.