The Economists’ Diet
When most people think about economics, they think about interest rates, business planning, or talking heads commenting on monetary policy. But it’s much more than that: it’s a science of human decision making that can help you make better food choices and achieve lasting weight loss. As two successful dieters who also happen to be professional economists, we know that key economic principles underpin a set of easy-to-understand behavioral best practices—which we call microhabits—that will enable you to eat less in a world of constant temptation.
Of course, we expect that to many, the claim that economics provides the solution to our weight gain and obesity epidemic will come as a surprise. But it shouldn’t: after all, economics explains why so many people overeat in the first place. As food has become less expensive and more plentiful in the past half century, it’s become easier to consume more of it. With fewer budgetary constraints to keep our all-too-regular desires to eat in check, the result is an ever-increasing rate of people classified as obese or overweight.
In this environment, it’s no wonder that so many hopeful dieters become frustrated. For all the information out there about how to lose weight, dieting remains a seemingly unwinnable battle fought against a tsunami of cheap and abundant food. Thousands of books and articles have been written on the subject, and yet 70 percent of Americans are still either overweight or obese. You know the difference between good food and bad food. You know that you are eating and drinking more than you should. You know to avoid burgers and fries in favor of leafy greens and other veggies. You know what to do, but you still don’t do it.
And that’s exactly why we felt compelled to write this book and share with you our core message: losing weight and keeping it off are far more about behavior than nutrition.
This is, as you have no doubt figured out already, a different kind of diet book. We aren’t going to delve into the science of weight gain or provide strict meal plans that you must follow if you have any prayer of losing a pound. We’re not going to tell you that you should become a vegan or go on a juice cleanse or cut out all foods except kale and coconut water. We are not going to do this because you have likely heard it all before, and yet you’re still here. We were there, too. As of January 2018, we have, between us, eighteen years of experience with successful weight loss. Chris lost forty-five pounds over an eighteen-month period starting in 2004 and is, as he writes this, fifty-five pounds below his highest weight.
Starting in 2014, Rob lost seventy-five pounds over a similar period and has successfully maintained his weight loss ever since. We might not be nutrition experts, but through our experience, we have developed what we believe is the most pragmatic and effective approach to losing weight, one that you won’t find in any other book.
And while you might assume that a diet plan rooted in the principles of economics would favor a lot of jargon or complex analyses, our diet plan is actually quite simple. The plain fact of the matter is that people gain weight by doing one thing and one thing only: eating too much food. While a few rare and incredibly fortunate people may be genetically inclined toward being thin, most slim people aren’t inherently different from fat people; they are thin because they behave differently. This is obvious from looking at data and trends; we also know it to be true from personal experience.
We, Rob and Chris, met while working at Bloomberg, a leading financial software, data, and media company. We were based in their Washington, DC, office, and our roles involved analyzing the business impact of government actions and regulations. Our careers and related lifestyles presented the same obstacles to healthy living that so many people face today: long days, endless stress, indulgent dinners, and an ample supply of cheap snacks. Outside of work, short of time but with plenty of disposable income, we chose to enjoy ourselves by frequently eating out and eating too much. In the process, we both went from normal to overweight and ended up clinically
obese; in Rob’s case, severely obese. When we finally embarked on our own weight loss journeys, we recognized that we had neither the time nor the inclination to achieve the perfect bodybuilder physique; we just wanted to be healthy again.
We were once fat, but now we’re not. It hasn’t been easy, but losing weight has helped us feel happier, healthier, and generally better, and now we want to share our stories and know-how with you. We hope that by telling you our unique approach to weight loss, you will be able to shed your own poundage and keep it off for good. As you will discover, we are not interested in quick fixes or crash diets that help you to lose weight quickly only to gain it all back once you stop following the program. Extreme diets may sound good, but they are—as you probably already know from having tried them—difficult, if not impossible, to follow over the long term. In short, they are unsustainable.
Instead, what we provide in the pages that follow will enable you to make long-term improvements to your health by developing new microhabits to ensure dieting success for the rest of your life. If you are obese like we were, getting rid of those extra pounds could take eighteen months or more. For the average American, who is twenty-three pounds heavier than his or her desired weight,1
you’re looking at a diet taking at least six months. Either way, once you’ve lost the weight, you will have adopted a whole new approach to food: one that
allows you to enjoy eating without all the stress of crash dieting.
Rather than subscribing to a particular food plan or program, we lost weight by applying what we know best—economics—to our waistlines. By carefully considering economic theories, real-world data, and our own personal experiences, we developed behavioral best practices that helped us control our impulses to overeat as well as approach food in a healthier way. For example, we think it’s time to abandon the idea of eating three square meals a day; and we strongly advocate weighing yourself at the start of each day, for reasons that we’ll soon explain.
Although this book is rooted in economics, we want to emphasize that this is not a theoretical guide to weight loss. It is a practical guide written by two individuals who have achieved lasting weight loss results. We designed the Economists’ Diet so that anyone can follow it, whether you have a PhD or barely understand the difference between supply and demand.
We know that losing weight is hard, because we’ve done it. And we know that keeping the weight off can often feel even harder. But we also know that it is possible and that the results are worth the effort. We hope that by reading this book, you will look at weight loss in a whole new light, and by applying our insights and advice to your own life, you will be able to make better decisions, form new habits, and achieve a healthier lifestyle for years to come.
We are rooting for you. If we can do it, so can you.
Fall 2003 220 pounds
Fat and not particularly happy about it.
Fall 2013 250 pounds
Winter 2007/8 174 pounds
Feeling much happier about our weight and our health.
Summer 2017 175 pounds
HOW WE GOT FAT
Before we launch into the practical elements of this book, we thought it would be helpful to share a little bit of our backstories so that you know how we arrived at the ideas we’re about to put forth. We also hope you can draw some inspiration from our success stories that will motivate you as you begin your weight loss journey.
We’ll start with Chris.
As of this writing, I, Chris, am forty-four years old and have maintained a healthy weight for more than ten years. Prior to losing forty-five pounds over a period of roughly eighteen months, I spent most of my adult life overweight (at times obese) and unhappy about it.
Even as a child growing up in Croydon, a suburb of London, I was aware that my weight was a problem. When I was about ten years old, my school conducted a survey of each student’s weight, and I was the heaviest person in the class. It didn’t really bother me that much at the time—I just knew I was bigger than my classmates.
That all changed a few years later, when, as a young teenager, I was subjected to name calling by some of my peers. This made me more self-conscious about my
weight. Like an increasing number of children today,2
I experimented with dieting, using SlimFast, a fad diet featuring meal replacements that was popular at the time and consists mostly of drinking flavored canned protein shakes. I had some success, but as with all quick fixes, it didn’t last long.
As an older teen, I would go out with friends so often that I sometimes quite literally forgot to eat. I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that I was the lightest I’ve ever been in my adult life around this time. I certainly wasn’t thin, but I wasn’t overweight, either.
Three months after I started at university, living away from home for the first time in my life, a friend pointed out to me that I had gained a lot of weight, likely from eating copious amounts of fried food washed down with many pints of Guinness stout. Actually, he told me that I was “looking fat.” (A really good friend, that guy.) In addition, I started to notice a bunch of red marks on my stomach and under my arms. Not knowing what these were and fearing the worst (I’m a bit of a hypochondriac), I went to the doctor, who tested me for a couple of rare disorders. When the tests came back negative, he concluded there could be only one explanation: stretch marks. At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the lesson here; it’s quite remarkable how much weight you can gain in a short amount of time if you really go for it.
I was officially fat, but I still didn’t do anything about it until my final year of school, when, in addition to preparing for my year-end exams, I tried the SlimFast diet again.
As before, it worked for a time, but I eventually regained all the weight I had lost (and then some).
After finishing school, I took a job in the financial district of London—what locals refer to as the “City” because it covers the square mile of the original Roman city of Londinium. The City is basically the Wall Street of the United Kingdom, and the lifestyle is pretty much the same.
First as an investor and later as a stockbroker, I was taken out to eat and drink a lot and did a lot of client entertaining myself. There were many enormous business lunches and regular business trips during which I would gorge on airport food only to be treated to yet another large meal upon arriving at my destination. Don’t get me wrong: the food was excellent (except for the airport stuff, of course). But as you can imagine, it wasn’t all that excellent for my waistline.
At this stage, it may be helpful to put some numbers on all of this. I am five foot ten inches tall. I am guessing that right before I started university, when I was at my lightest, I weighed around 160 to 165 pounds. Three months and many stretch marks later, I was closing in on 190 pounds. When I left university, after my second attempt at the SlimFast diet, I think I may have been back down to around 180 pounds. But then I began a steady climb back up the scale.
I should stress that it wasn’t just the entertaining that caused me to gain weight. I simply ate too much all of the time. Why? Because I was bored, frustrated, and
depressed in my job. Every day, the alarm clock went off at 5:42 a.m. on the dot. I got up, showered, shaved, got dressed, and was out the door at 6:03. I took the 6:18 train and got to my desk by 6:50. The daily team meeting began at 7:00, after which I would eat a large breakfast and begin calling clients. My first call started at 8:30, and generally I was busy until 11:00 or 11:30, by which time I was tired and fed up. Selling stocks is a pretty miserable profession—at least it was for me and most, if not all, of my colleagues. Admittedly, stockbrokers are some of the best paid salesmen in the world, but making those daily calls to clients is painful.
But there was more to it than that. Picking or recommending the right investments—for example, stocks that do better than the Dow Jones or the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500—is almost impossible. Of course, the laws of probability mean that some investors will “beat” the market; and those that do inevitably attribute their success to their own intrinsic genius. But in all my years of experience, I never encountered anyone who convinced me that his or her investment performance was anything other than random—sometimes good, sometimes bad. And this is hardly surprising: in a world racked by uncertainty, there’s simply no way to predict what will happen next.
How did all of this contribute to my obesity? Because, even though I was no more capable than anyone else of picking the right stocks, I was different in one key way: I was honest with myself. I knew that I would never be
able to beat the market and that my career was failing to give me the mental stimulation and satisfaction that I needed.
To sum it up, I was bored, and I found that the best way to comfort and distract myself was to go out for nice, large lunches with my friends. Three friends in particular—Tim, Alun, and Omar—worked near my office, so the four of us would meet regularly to complain about work and life in general. As I tucked into my meal, my bulging belly was the last thing on my mind.
One of my favorite lunches was lasagna and fries—the big, thick heavy ones, oozing grease, which we Brits call chips. It doesn’t take a nutritional genius to realize that this is a bad lunch from a health perspective, although it was quite satisfying from a drown-your-sorrows-in-carbs perspective. When I combined these lunches with a grande white chocolate mocha from Starbucks and an afternoon watching the clock, the weight soon stacked up.
Of course, my gluttony did not end when I left the office. After an unsatisfying day at work, the last thing I wanted to do was go home, exercise, and eat a sensible dinner. Many days in the City would end with me at the pub, bemoaning work yet again. Once home, I’d eat a full dinner: perhaps another round of pasta or a premade microwave meal or delivery from one of the multiple restaurants near my home. As the pounds added up, I knew I needed to do something about it, but I had no real motivation to change my ways.
Occasionally, I would discuss the problem with my
brother, Richard, who has, at times, suffered from the same weight issues as me. But the discussion was always lighthearted and often conducted over yet another large lunch. Richard and I preferred to meet at McDonald’s, where my standard order was a supersized Big Mac and fries followed by a cheeseburger for dessert. You read that right: I literally ate a cheeseburger for dessert. The extra burger helped prolong the lunch so I could buy myself a few more precious minutes away from the office.
My diet of excess and abundance finally culminated on Sunday, January 4, 2004. I had taken off Christmas and New Year’s Day, so this was my last night of holiday vacation before I had to return to work. For me, January 5, 2004, signified the beginning of what was sure to be yet another personally unsatisfying year. To make myself feel better, I stuffed myself with my favorite Indian dishes: chicken vindaloo, pilau rice, naan bread, and the vegetable dish saag aloo accompanied by multiple crisp papadums. I knew instinctively that after a gluttonous Christmas, this was the final straw for my body. I was fat, unhappy, and, to quote the British black comedy (and one of my favorite movies) Withnail and I, “making an enemy of my own future.”
The following morning, I did something that I very rarely did in those days: I stood on the scale. And to my chagrin, I discovered that I was obese. At 220 pounds, I was disgusted with myself. To this day, I don’t really know what changed in my brain, but I knew something had to be done. The Economists’ Diet had begun.
My story is similar to Chris’s, but without quite so much work-related nihilism.
Although America’s obesity epidemic was on the rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I, Rob, wasn’t particularly fat as a child, though people may have described me as “husky” or “full framed.”
Looking back, I believe my childhood eating habits were probably conducive toward a healthy weight. My parents were frugal, which meant that we ate most meals at home (a fact that, as we’ll explain later in this book, greatly reduces the risk of overeating). My mother was also not a pushover, and whatever she had prepared was the only thing on offer for us to eat. If she made a broccoli and rice casserole, my sister and I had to eat broccoli and rice casserole or nothing at all.
Mom rarely cooked dishes from scratch, but she still sought balance. My mother’s idea of preparing meals epitomized the American ideal of convenience cooking: mixing and matching ingredients from various boxes, cans, and packages to design a quick and easy meal. Think Hamburger Helper with a side of frozen broccoli. Or chicken casserole made from cubed chicken, a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, and some Town House crackers sprinkled on top. By today’s nutritional standards, these meals might not be considered that healthy, but they
were simple and served in limited amounts, meaning that I wasn’t overeating.
My family typically ate out once or twice a week. As a reward for sitting quietly through the weekly sermon at the United Methodist Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, my parents would treat us to brunch at our local Tex-Mex restaurant. To this day, I still greatly enjoy Tex-Mex food; I also still require a good bribe to get me to attend church. Other restaurant visits were reserved for evenings when Mom needed a reprieve from her daily duties. We almost always went to “family style” places such as Shoney’s or Ryan’s Steak House, where you could order a “meat and three”: a serving of meat and three side dishes. My sister and I would have preferred more trips to McDonald’s, but fast-food restaurants were limited almost exclusively to road trips.
Off at college, I’m almost certain I gained the so-called freshman fifteen like everybody else, though it’s hard to say for sure because I didn’t weigh myself frequently. I’m five foot ten, so, while an extra fifteen pounds was certainly not great, I carried it well enough that it wasn’t too noticeable. Generally, alcohol and pot aside, my lifestyle choices in college trended toward healthy. I had plenty of free time, so I exercised almost daily at the local recreation center. For food, I had a meal plan at the school cafeteria during most of my undergraduate program, and my mother would have been proud of how frequently I elected to eat salad.
Good habits don’t necessarily last forever, though, and they’re highly influenced by one’s environment. I don’t want to blame my wife and children for my eventual weight gain, but things definitely went downhill after I finished grad school, got a full-time job, married, had children, and, most notably, moved to Washington, DC.
Of those things, getting a full-time job, and thus having more money to spend, was probably the biggest reason I started to gain weight. In grad school, I had a tight budget and often had to make tough choices: Would I rather have a burrito from Boca Grande or a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbons at the Model Café? It was probably healthier weightwise to choose the beers, which I did often.
Once you’ve entered the work world, you discover quickly that eating out occasionally is one luxury that most people can afford. I couldn’t afford the fanciest apartment or the fanciest car, but I could certainly pay to have someone else cook dinner for me once in a while. After my wife, Anne Marie, and I secured jobs in Boston, dining out became the norm.
We moved into a small apartment in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. We didn’t have much space, but we did have access to some of the city’s best eateries and bars. The proprietors of Crossroads Irish Pub, the Eastern Standard, and a handful of other local establishments knew us by name. I also bought my lunch most days—
because I could. My behavior was ultimately to blame for my weight gain, but the lack of any real financial constraint was making it all possible.
When I look back at pictures, I’m able to somewhat piece together my weight trajectory. At the end of grad school, I clocked in at 165 to 170 pounds. Over the next several years, as I entered the working world and married, I started to noticeably gain weight. By early 2011, when Anne Marie and I decided to move from Boston to DC, I weighed roughly 200 pounds, which made me solidly overweight. But it was in Washington where I really started to pack on the pounds.
I took a new job and, during my first two and a half years living in DC, managed to add 50 more pounds—that’s nearly 10 additional pounds every six months! At the start of 2014, I was thirty-five years old and weighed a staggering 250 pounds. From a medical perspective, I was classified as “severely obese.”
The weight was beginning to take its toll on my health. I’d started taking blood pressure medicine a few years earlier, but the doctor had to keep upping my dosage. At my annual physical, my doctor informed me that my cholesterol was also above normal and I was going to have to start taking medicine to manage that as well. She gave me six months to see if I could bring my cholesterol under control through a combination of exercise and healthier eating. My affluence was literally making me sick, and what the doctor said set off alarm bells in my mind. All
the same, I was at a loss as to what to do about it. I’d been on diets before and always ended up right back where I started—ultimately, in fact, heavier than ever.
I was also looking pretty rough. My colleagues joked with me that I “had a face made for radio,” which was unfortunate because my job required me to occasionally appear on TV. It was all in jest, but it was clearly a sign that I was getting too damn fat.
Of course, I realized that I was getting fatter and fatter, but I felt helpless to get a handle on it. In hindsight, it’s obvious what was going on. Being new to DC, my wife and I wanted to sample all of the city’s culinary delights, and so we continued the habit of eating out that we had developed back in Boston. Even when we didn’t eat out, takeout was frequently the option of least resistance because we had a new infant at home. Plus, I had taken up a regular snacking habit.
So there I was at the start of 2014: 250 pounds and severely obese. And that’s when I had the good fortune to sit down with my friend and coauthor Chris Payne. Our fateful conversation took place after I’d appeared in a video for Bloomberg discussing a recent event in the news. It started something like this:
Did you see my latest video?
Yeah, I saw it. Good job.
Thanks. But fuck, man! I’m getting fat.
One could say that. One could also say that you are fat.
But I knew he was right. Over the next few minutes, Chris and I discussed my weight problem, and I found out that he, too, had once been obese but had somehow managed to get his weight under control. Chris helped me realize that there was no real mystery to how I’d gained so much weight: I simply ate too much, and the simple solution to my problem was to eat less. He pointed out that, despite all the talk about metabolism or genetics, the biggest difference between fat people and thin people is behavior. Thin people eat less than fat ones.
I pushed back, of course, because it was easier to make excuses than to accept responsibility for my situation. But this conversation helped us both realize that certain key behaviors affect weight, all of which can be explained by the same principles both of us had studied for years: the principles of economics.
HOW SOCIETY GOT FAT
Before we can understand how to change our behavior in order to lose weight, it’s helpful to understand how we as a society got fat in the first place.
Theories abound as to what led to our current obesity epidemic. Recently, many scientists have started pointing to a lack of diversity in our gut bacteria (also known as our microbiome) as a likely culprit.3
Others suggest that chemicals called phthalates, which are commonly found in plastic and a variety of household products, disrupt the body’s
hormonal system, thus causing weight gain.4
Others theorize that too much weight gain by a mother during pregnancy can predispose the baby to being overweight—which then percolates throughout childhood and into adult life. Apparently, receiving too many antibiotics as a child can exert a similar effect. Meanwhile, certain genetic conditions play a role, which is one reason why obesity runs in families.5
We are not in a position to refute any of this important scientific work, but, on the whole, we think the problem is much more straightforward: we have gotten fat simply because we eat too much food. Why? Because most of us have access to much more food than we need. In economic terms, we could say that there is an oversupply, or glut, of food in many parts of the world. Increased supply with concomitant lower prices has pushed the boundaries of our self-control to the breaking point. Throughout this book, we call this condition “abundance.”
Pretty much every commonly held explanation for obesity can be explained by abundance. One of the most widely read books on weight gain (and a favorite of ours), Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes, dedicates pages and pages to convincing us that “we do not get fat because we overeat; we get fat because the carbohydrates in our diet make us fat.”6
Specifically, these types of nutrients trigger the hormone insulin, thereby signaling to your body the need to store fat; eating too many carbohydrates will therefore result in excess fat. For good reasons that we will explain later, we
don’t doubt that it’s best to avoid eating too much pasta, rice, sugar, and bread, but our overconsumption of these carbohydrates, either turning up on our dinner plate or as a snack, has been caused by their abundance. By way of example, obesity rates are often higher in poorer sections of rich countries precisely because, thanks to mass production techniques, these sections of the population fill themselves up on carbohydrate-heavy foods, which, in the past few decades, have become extremely inexpensive to produce. These products can be sold cheaply and therefore are more appealing than their healthier counterparts; as a result, they are bought in large quantities.
Meanwhile, much has been written about how stress leads to overeating. As we told you earlier, one of the reasons that Chris ate so much when he worked in London was because he felt stressed out about his job. But the fact of the matter is, if he hadn’t had access to so much food, no amount of stress could have made him gain weight. Likewise, a genetic predisposition to being overweight could go unnoticed for generations in the same family if food was relatively scarce.7
Data provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) provide clear evidence that income and abundance (caused by productivity gains that lead to higher incomes in the first place) are associated with obesity. It’s difficult to look at the chart on page 22
without concluding that the richer a country is, the more likely it is to have an obesity problem.
Source: World Health Organization. Being overweight is defined as having a body mass index score of 25 or more.
There are many reasons why we overeat, and certainly some foods are better for us than others. But as this chart shows, without access to the huge supply of food currently at our disposal, obesity rates would not be what they are today: poorer countries have a lower incidence of people being overweight than richer countries do.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 36 percent of adult Americans are obese, while about 33 percent are overweight—so nearly 70 percent of the population is either overweight or obese.8
It hasn’t always been so. In 1970 only about 15 percent of the population would have been classified as obese and about 32 percent as overweight—for a combined total of 47 percent.9
Okay, so Americans haven’t been thin for a while, but they have grown much rounder in the last few decades.
And it’s not just an American problem. The WHO estimates that 35 percent of the world’s adults are overweight and 11 percent are obese.10
The majority of the earth’s population now lives in countries where obesity and weight-related diseases kill more people than starvation or undernourishment.11
By way of example, obesity is also an issue in France, which many Americans assume is populated entirely by waif-thin models. In 1997 only 37 percent of French citizens were overweight or obese, but by 2007, nearly 50 percent were classified as such.12
This is shocking considering that same year, French-born author Mireille Guiliano published a bestselling book in America entitled French Women Don’t Get Fat. Turns out, they do.
So why are we eating so much?
In 2003 three Harvard University economists, David Cutler, Ed Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro, published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled
“Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” In it they blamed mass production techniques related to processing and packing food—specifically atmospheric control, preventing spoilage due to microorganisms, flavor preservation, moisture preservation, and temperature control—which have advanced considerably since the early 1970s. These technological innovations have greatly reduced the amount of time it takes to prepare a meal while simultaneously giving us access to a wider variety of food. More food, more kinds of food, plus more time to eat the food: it all comes back to abundance.13
If you pause and think about your own habits, you can probably observe the central truth in this idea. When was the last time you cooked a meal completely from scratch at home? How often do you eat out? Does most of the food you’re eating come in a plastic bag, a box, or a can? This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to demonize all processed foods or fast-food restaurants, but because they generally contain many more calories than food prepared with basic ingredients at home, it’s clear they play a central role in our ever-increasing waistlines.
More processed and mass-produced food explains a large part of the problem; after all, the whole point of a production line is to increase supply, lowering prices along the way. Indeed, the most important of all economics books, The Wealth of Nations, written back in 1776 by the Scottish political economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, opens with an explanation
of how the revolution in production techniques was enabling exponential increases in output. These techniques, combined with the advanced specialization of tasks among workers (what Smith called the division of labor), has enabled the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the United States to increase by roughly twenty-five times—2,500 percent—between when Adam Smith wrote and today.14
Our obesity epidemic suggests that the more food that has been produced, the more food we’ve eaten. If you still doubt whether there is a glut of food that is responsible for making us fat, just look at the table below, published by the US National Institutes of Health. In the twenty years between 1993 and 2013 alone, it is shocking to see how much average portion sizes have increased.
Comparison of Portions and Calories Between 1993 and 2013
3 inches in diameter
6 inches in diameter
Spaghetti with meatballs
1 cup, 3 small meatballs
2 cups, 3 large meatballs
Source: US National Institutes of Health15
Even so, the processed-food revolution tells only part of the story. Higher incomes have also played a role in changing our preferences and expectations of how much food we want to eat. Not only has supply increased dramatically, but also demand has shifted upward. This is because consumption is predominantly determined by income—a point that was central to the twentieth century’s most famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, in the analysis of consumption in his landmark book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, first published in 1936. “Men are disposed,” Keynes wrote, “as a rule and on the average, to increase their consumption as their income increases.”16
And while the British economist wasn’t referring specifically to eating, time has shown that this statement is as equally applicable to food as it is to anything else we buy. Earning more doesn’t just mean we can afford more; it means that we actually prefer to spend and consume more. We want bigger houses, better cars, fancier gadgets, and more of pretty much everything, including food.
The charts below are sending a clear message. You don’t have to be a statistician to see a well-defined relationship over the past forty years between increases in the daily consumption of calories, being overweight, and income.
Sources: US Census, National Center for Health Statistics17
On the surface, this doesn’t make much sense. We’d be more inclined to think as Adam Smith did: “The desire of food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations. “But the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture seems to have no limit or certain boundary.”18
Put simply, Smith assumed wrongly but entirely reasonably that no matter how much money we have and how much we spend, humans would always consume a certain quantity of food—enough to enable them to go on living.
So why should rising incomes influence how much we eat?
For the answer, we find it useful to turn to another economist, Tibor Scitovsky. Keynes had previously put forth the notion that consumption behavior could be influenced by a number of subjective factors, including enjoyment, shortsightedness, generosity, miscalculation, ostentation, and extravagance, rather than simply an objective factor like income. In his 1976 book The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction (sure to be your next book club selection!), Scitovsky took his analysis of the role of enjoyment one step further by splitting it into two distinct emotions: comfort and pleasure.
Comfort, as defined by Scitovsky, is the feeling we get when our level of arousal is just right. Meanwhile, both overstimulation and understimulation are uncomfortable states. Hunger, for instance, can be viewed as a form of
understimulation—a disturbance that needs to be eliminated by eating, which returns us to an optimum level of arousal, and, thus, a general feeling of comfort.19
Using Scitovsky’s own terminology, feelings of comfort come when we get to a certain “speed” of arousal. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a bit like acceleration and deceleration. We feel pleasure as we move from a state of overstimulation or understimulation to a state of optimum stimulation (comfort). When we eat, we feel pleasure by “speeding up and away” from the disturbance that hunger causes.
But problems arise because the pleasure that we experience by getting our stimulation just right is not necessarily eliminated once we arrive at that optimal level. Many drivers feel comfortable when cruising at fifty-five miles per hour but will accelerate above this speed because of the pleasure generated simply by accelerating.
In other words, while we feel comfortable at an optimum state, we feel pleasure when experiencing further stimulating activity, even if that stimulation leads us to a place where we don’t want to be. We eat to appease our hunger, and therefore we must be hungry to really enjoy eating. But once we start eating, the pleasure of doing so doesn’t stop just because we have satiated our appetites. We often continue to stimulate ourselves by eating to the point of feeling uncomfortable.
You can see this idea at work in the stories we told you about how each of us got fat. Chris was understimulated at work, so he turned to food to provide short-term
arousal. And even after he’d eaten enough to feel satiated, he continued to pig out and snack in order to maintain that sense of stimulation. Likewise with Rob: a key part of finding new stimuli from his surroundings in Boston and Washington, DC, involved eating out.
By this point, you might have recognized an uncomfortable truth in our explanation for why so many of us are overweight. In a world where millions suffer from real starvation and malnutrition, some of us have attained a level of wealth and accompanying boredom that we literally try to eat our way out of. Our narratives are a perfect example of overeating caused by not only an increase in the supply of cheap food at low prices but also a desire to eat a greater variety of tastier, more enticing, and fattening meals and snacks. It is a problem of both supply and demand.
Still, it’s not for us to say whether you recognize yourself in our narratives of getting fat. The reasons we overate may not be the same reasons you overeat. But ultimately, we have learned that the only solution is to eat less. And, for the rest of this book, we’re going to show you how to do just that.
HOW TWO ECONOMISTS APPROACH THE PROBLEM OF WEIGHT LOSS
You’ve read our personal stories of weight gain, and you’ve read our explanation of why so many people overeat. Now, what can you do about it?
Each of the following chapters provides specific and straightforward tips on how to train yourself to eat less in a world where food is abundant. As we explained earlier, although this advice is designed to be practical and not theoretical, it is based on key economic principles that explain why this approach works.
In chapter 1, “Scarcity (Why You Need to Weigh Yourself Every Day),” we explain that a diet is what we call a “self-imposed eating-austerity program.” Just as a country might impose spending cuts today in order to avoid an economic crisis tomorrow, a dieter must learn how to reduce the amount of food he or she eats today in order to avoid a future health crisis. One reason this is so difficult is because eating less means you are going to, at times, experience hunger—a state that is uncomfortable but necessary if you want to lose weight. We offer a variety of ways to mentally battle the temptations to snack and overeat that are ever present, especially when you’re feeling hungry. In particular, we explain, using behavioral economics, why weighing yourself every day will bolster your ability to make better decisions.
We, Rob and Chris, became fat because, in our daily lives, we encountered a glut of food but were essentially unconstrained by our budgets, creating a situation in which unbounded demand met practically unlimited supply. As chapter 2, “Abundance (Busting the Myth of Three Square Meals a Day),” discusses, this manifests partly through the expectation, prevalent in our society, that we should eat three square, or full-sized, meals a day. In
outlining the economic history of this practice, we show that, in today’s world, while eating three times a day is a good routine to stick to (especially if it helps you avoid snacking), only one of these meals should be square.
Good decision making requires good information, and good information means good data. In chapter 3, “Data (Be Calorie Conscious, Not a Calorie Counter),” we explain that there is an information gap between what you eat and the effect it has on your body. Fortunately, calorie data, provided by many restaurants and on packaged foods, can provide an effective signal, motivating you to make healthier decisions. Using this logic, we’ll make an argument for being calorie conscious as opposed to being a calorie counter, which we believe turns data into an impossible-to-tame tyrant instead of an ally in your fight to keep weight off over the long term. In addition to calorie data, we’ll show how experimenting with your body using a scale can help you determine what kind and quantity of food is right for you. The chapter ends with a plan for setting a long-term weight target that is achievable and realistic.
Dieters face many headwinds in their battle to lose weight and keep it off, not least of which is the food industry’s constant efforts to encourage us to eat more. Chapter 4, “Buyer Beware (Don’t Waste Time or Money on the Diet Industrial Complex),” employs concepts developed in behavioral economics to explain why we’re so often influenced by misleading marketing and how to guard ourselves against these tactics. We explain the
economic philosophy behind “buyer beware” and why, in a free-market economy, it’s up to consumers to differentiate between genuinely valuable products/services and gimmicks designed to make us spend money on things we don’t need.
In chapter 5, “Equilibrium (Variety May Be the Spice of Life, but It’s Also Making You Fat),” we use consumer theory and the related law of diminishing returns to explain why, for many of us, the constant search for new eating experiences and variety is problematic for our waistlines. Following from this, we explain that a repetitive diet is a slimming diet and that if you want to maintain a healthy weight, you should limit the number and types of foods you eat. To illustrate this, we provide details on what we eat at home as well as some recommendations to help get you started. Using the same concept of equilibrium, we’ll advise you on coming to terms with one of the harsher realities of weight loss: that dieting is a lifestyle that demands changing your eating habits for the long term. That said, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
At this point, it’s important to stress that while we believe you should follow our advice closely, the Economists’ Diet is specifically designed so that you can, at times, enjoy the basic pleasure that comes with eating your favorite foods. Any diet that prohibits the occasional splurge is doomed to failure because even the most motivated dieter has limits on how much he or she can sacrifice. In chapter 6, “Budgeting (How to Splurge and Still Lose Weight),” we employ the prisoner’s dilemma,
a favorite model of economists, to explain that feasting is a necessary part of human activity, and one that we need to embrace. While in current times we splurge more than ever, humans have always enjoyed overeating on certain occasions. The key to squaring this particular circle—and thus preventing the urge to splurge from making you fat—is to practice mini-feasting/mini-fasting, either by saving up calories in advance of a big meal or by paying off calorie debts after the occasion. Given the imperative to mini-feast/mini-fast, it becomes paramount not to waste calories on food you don’t really enjoy.
We hope that in reading this book, you will learn some principles of economics and take inspiration from our personal stories. Most important, we hope we will convince you to give our behavioral approach to weight loss a try. We know from personal experience that eating less and avoiding temptation take practice and effort. Likewise, our behavioral recommendations will take time to put into action and perfect. But what makes them powerful is their simplicity and brevity. Taken together, our behavioral best practices provide an original approach to dieting, which, as we know from firsthand experience, enables dieters to achieve lasting weight loss. And trust us: if we can do it, so can you.