- Christopher Payne and Rob Barnett are economists who wrote the book “The Economists’ Diet.”
- Payne and Barnett, who were once obese, say the behaviours that affect weight can all be explained by the principles of economics.
- Those principles include: minimise decision-making, stick to a boring diet, and weigh yourself every day.
Rob Barnett calls it the “fateful conversation.”
He’d just appeared on a video for Bloomberg, where he worked as an economist, to discuss a recent news event.
Barnett asked a fellow Bloomberg economist, Christopher Payne, “Did you see my latest video?”
“Yeah, I saw it,” Payne said. “Good job.”
“Thanks,” Barnett responded. “But f—, man! I’m getting fat.”
Payne didn’t beat around the bush.
“One could say that,” he told Barnett. “One could also say that you are fat.”
Barnett and Payne reproduce this conversation in their new book, “The Economists’ Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off.”
At the time, Barnett was severely obese. Payne could identify – at one point in his life, he’d been obese too. Then he lost about 20kgs in 18 months.
The authors say the exchange that followed helped them both realise that the behaviours that affect weight can all be explained by the principles of economics. Barnett eventually lost 34kgs, also in 18 months.
The book is an outgrowth of that original conversation, and the authors teach readers how to approach weight loss the same way they did.
I recently spoke with the authors over the phone about the weight-loss strategies I found most compelling. Here’s what I learned.
Use meta-rules to minimise the chance of making bad choices …
A meta-rule is a guideline you set in advance that covers all situations. The authors say they borrowed the term from Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University.
An example of a meta-rule is “Unless it’s a special occasion, I never have seconds,” or “During the week, I always have salad for lunch.”
The idea behind meta-rules is that you’re eliminating as much choice as possible.
“The more times you present yourself with a choice, the more possibility there is to do something that you’re trying not to do,” Payne said.
… and to save yourself some mental energy
Using meta-rules is also less mentally exhausting. Payne says that if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to just not have whatever you’re trying to avoid eating in your home. Otherwise, you’ll have to make a decision every night about whether to indulge.
Barnett and Payne are hardly the only people to minimise decision-making to achieve a health goal.
Max Levchin, a PayPal founder who’s now the CEO of the online lending service Affirm, previously told Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell about the importance of consistency in his fitness regimen.
“So long as your daily default is ‘Be on the bike,’ some days you’ll miss because you’re travelling or you’re sick,” he said. “But most of the time, you’ll just get up, and get on a bike first thing in the morning, which is what I do.”
Stick with a boring diet
“A boring diet is a slimming diet,” Barnett said.
It goes back to the concept of diminishing returns.
To use Barnett’s example: If you eat a single Oreo, you’re going to enjoy it – but “if you eat a full bag of Oreos, by the time you eat the last one, you’re not going to get nearly as much happiness or utility out of it.”
He added: “If you restrict your food choices day in and day out, no matter what kind of preferences you have for food, you’re going to get bored with it.”
Both Barnett and Payne said they eat a salad for lunch every weekday.
“I’ve gotten to like salads over the years, but I don’t have the urge to overeat a salad,” Payne said.
When Payne goes to Starbucks, he orders an Americano with a dash of nonfat milk.
What’s more, when you do allow yourself to splurge, depending on your specific meta-rules, you’ll enjoy it that much more.
Weigh yourself every day to keep the numerical goal in mind
This weight-loss strategy is more controversial than the others. But the authors say it has worked for them.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Obesity found that overweight men who weighed themselves every day and received visual feedback about their weight trajectories lost more weight than their counterparts who didn’t weigh themselves as frequently, and that they were better able to maintain the weight loss.
And a study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Obesity yielded similar findings in women.
Other experts advise against weighing yourself every day. Moran Cerf, a professor of business and neuroscience at Northwestern University 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.
One dietitian told USA Today she didn’t recommend daily weigh-ins for most clients.
“You can get lost in those numbers and start to identify your self-worth with what’s on the scale,” she said.
Stop tracking everything else
Still, Barnett and Payne call weight loss an “empirical process.”
“You’re basically a scientist of your own body,” Payne said. Weigh yourself in the morning, see whether the number has gone up or down, reflect on what you ate the day before, and tweak as necessary.
Interestingly, the authors don’t recommend tracking anything but your weight. Barnett argued that if your weight is what you’re trying to control, that’s the only thing you should keep tabs on – not, for example, how many steps you take.
Barnett put it in very frank terms.
“Your obesity – or lack thereof – it’s not a secret to anyone,” he said. “You should get acquainted with that number.”
He added: “It really is a life-changing thing to add this to your daily routine.”