Health & Fitness Books
In 2014, Rob Barnett, an economist at Bloomberg, appeared
on Bloomberg TV to discuss the Keystone Pipeline. The
interview went well, but the footage of the segment gave
Barnett a shock. “I’ve gotten fat,” he said to Christopher
Payne, then a colleague at Bloomberg. Payne, who’d been
overweight himself once, and who brooks no illusions
about weight loss, replied to
Barnett that he hadn’t gotten
fat—he was fat.
Barnett and Payne thereafter
became friends (honesty is everything), and though they
parted ways professionally—
Payne now works for the Kuwait Institute of Banking Studies—they have, for the past few
years, been devising an approach to diet that uses the discipline they know best: economics.
In The Economists’ Diet (Touchstone, Jan.
2018), they present a guide to weight loss
that reimagines food as “supply” and hunger as “scarcity,” gustatory restraint as “
austerity” and careful eating as “budgeting.”
PW spoke with the authors about how their
Economics is a discipline rooted in data.
How does that figure into your book?
RB: After that initial conversation [with
Payne], the first thing I did was go out and
get a scale, and I started weighing myself
every day. One of the key features of the
book is: You’ve got to start applying data
and looking at how your behaviors on a
daily basis affect your weight the following morning.
Most diet advice focuses on “eat this food, not that food.”
We didn’t talk about food at all. But we did spend a lot of
time talking about behavior.
Your book references the idea of austerity. How can a
dieter incorporate the concept into his behavior?
CP: From our perspective, as economists, one of the
big economic problems is that people undervalue the
future. They don’t think enough about future costs
when they’re making consumption decisions. There’s
an instant-gratification problem. What you need to do
is impose eating austerity [on yourself]. You’re trying
to impose scarcity—to pretend, if you like, that food is
more scarce than it is.
RB: Intellectually, I know
that I shouldn’t eat a bag of
Doritos very often. But I
love Doritos. When you’re
in the moment, it’s very
difficult to have clear
thinking. The metric you
get by weighing yourself
on the scale every day helps
you to clarify your thinking
about food generally.
Your book also uses the concept
“diminishing returns.” How does it
factor in here?
CP: I eat the same thing [over and over
again]: a piece of grilled chicken, or some
kind of grilled meat, and vegetables. That
leaves space for the occasional splurge; we
can “budget” for that. [But more impor-tant,] because I have it all the time, there’s
a diminishing marginal utility that comes
from having it. Because the meals aren’t
thrilling, I don’t need to stuff my face
Why do you think an economic frame-
work makes for a good approach to
RB: Economics gives you a very structured way to look at
almost any kind of problem. We apply that to discipline
of thinking to weight, but you could apply it to many
CP: We’re bringing a different language. That’s the thing
about economics. It’s not just that it explains things to us.
It’s an alternative language through which to think
through the problem of diet. —D.L.
What two economists can teach you about weight loss