Losing weight is no mean feat, and just about every Tom, Dick and Harriet will preach their own set of “golden rules”.
While restrictive diets and gruelling workout regimes might be most people’s first dieting port-of-call, two formerly obese economists argue that the real secret to losing weight is actually down to simple economics.
Rather than perpetuating a set of mythical magic tricks, Christopher Payne and Rob Barnett – two economists who met at Bloomberg – have outlined how applying basic economic theories to dieting can foster a healthier relationship with food that will naturally lead to weight loss.
In The Economists’ Diet, Payne and Barnett reveal how simple economic practices such as budgeting and equilibrium helped them shed the pounds and stop attributing weight gain to “slow metabolisms” and “heavy bones”.
“Evidence conclusively proves that the richer a country is, the higher the rates of obesity and of being overweight,” Payne explains.
“This is because richer countries take most advantage of productivity gains in the food industry that have enabled more calorie-heavy food to be produced at lower costs.
“Increased supply means more food is sold at a lower cost. This is why a diet should be viewed as self-imposed eating austerity; eating less than you otherwise would or could.”
The use of data forms a key part of Payne’s approach to food. This is crucial, he explains, because of the information asymmetry problem in food, whereby consumers know far less about what they’re eating than producers do.
This is why he advocates being calorie-conscious rather than counting calories, which Payne says is “completely impractical and entirely unsustainable.”
Being calorie-conscious, he explains, means you’re using calorie data to make informed choices about what you eat i.e. checking the labels of packaged foods to ensure the “healthy” things you’re buying aren’t loaded with hidden calories, as so many are.
Another practice both authors now swear by is the “square meal” concept.
A “square meal” is any meal that is moderate in size and calories, Payne explains, who advises eating just one square meal a day, complemented by two lighter meals.
“It’s your main staple meal of the day,” he told The Independent, “while the two other lighter meals could be a bowl of cereal, a salad or a sandwich.
However, he clarified that the square meal should not be considered an indulgence.
“For instance, it’s not four slices of pizza, a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese, or a Sunday roast with all the trimmings,” he said.
“Both of us were obese because we were entirely unaware that eating three square meals a day was far too much food. Abundance in the form of vast quantities of cheap calorie-heavy food, facilitated us eating too much.
“Realising that we only needed one square meal a day reflected a change in mindset that enabled us to tackle head-on the impact that abundance was having on our respective waistlines.
“It’s about realising that if you lose 30 per cent of your weight, you’ll probably have to eat roughly 30 per cent less food for the rest of your life.”
Both authors advise dieters to adjust to a new equilibrium food intake i.e. finding tactics that will enable them to simply eat less.
One way to do this is by limiting the variety in your diet, Payne suggests.
“This relates to the economic concept of diminishing marginal returns.
“Explained simply, diminishing marginal returns seeks to explain why one Oreo tastes great while the 30th consecutive Oreo might not bring you all that much enjoyment.
“The more you consume of something, the less you’re likely to enjoy each increment.
“Even if you’re only eating at McDonald’s for every meal, you’ll likely grow tired of the menu items because of diminishing marginal returns, and you’ll be less tempted to overeat.”
Of course, another key component to sustained weight loss is exercise, however, Payne thinks it’s a mistake to rely solely on workouts as a means of losing weight.
“For starters, strenuous exercise makes you hungrier,” he said.
“Many people who exercise lose no weight because they eat more to compensate. When Rob was at his peak weight, he worked out more than he does today.
“Once the exercise regime comes to an end, the weight is regained because no real lessons have been learned about overeating. There has been no change to eating behaviour.
“Given our jobs and family obligations, we simply don’t have enough time in the day to spend at the gym to overcome the typical British diet.”
As for “cheat days” or “treat meals”, whereby dieters allow their typically regimented habits to slip, Payne explains this is where employing the concept of budgeting is imperative.
“Any diet that forces you to permanently give up your favourite foods isn’t going to work,” he said, “apart from leaving you miserable, it ignores the patently obvious fact that there are plenty of times during the year when you’re going to overeat and overindulge.”
This is why it’s crucial to budget for splurges, he suggests, which typically means eating less for the rest of the day in order to accommodate for what he calls a “mini-feast”.
“It’s exactly the same principle of saving up ahead of a big expenditure or cutting back spending after splashing out.”
Who knew food and finance were so intrinsically linked?