OBESITY – A Tale of Two Economists, The Simple Problem of Supply & Demand

Since the 1990’s, the portion size and calories have nearly doubled for a pasta dish of spaghetti or a hamburger. After reading “The Economists Diet,” many revelations came to mind. The book is about a couple of economists who worked and overate themselves into obesity. They fit into to about 40% of Americans nowadays. It is probably not a stretch that they also have (had) Fatty Liver Disease to go along with it. They faced the same obstacles to healthy living that, so many Americans face today: long hours, endless stress, constant eating out, and snacking out of boredom – The American Way. It reads akin to a Freakanomics book, arguing a medical dilemma from an economist’s point of view.

They write about the habits, oversupply of the food chain, instant gratification, processed foods, consuming less carbs, eating one meal a day (vs. three), fasting and feasting. Eating just one meal a day is much easier said than done.  Achieving this kind of discipline is a real challenge in today’s society of office workers and sit-down jobs. One of the key things I think these two economists did right was limiting their dependence on carbohydrates. Although they were not overly aggressive in their approach, limiting processed foods and carbohydrates helped them with about 80% of their success, to put it into numbers. The book goes back to the 1700’s when the father of economics, Adam Smith wrote about man’s limitation of overeating is limited by the small size of the stomach. Certainly, in those days, no one ever had excess to an overabundance of food (except maybe the politicians).

What is also important is that the authors started considering what is actually in their food. Understanding the science and economics of what must go into a food to allow it to sit on a shelf for months at a time is paramount. If you really want to lose the pounds, wrapping your head around what is in processed food is key for anyone trying to make a change. This is what leads people to make better choices. Another thing they got right was to not expect all the weight to come off at once. Many diet fads advertise losing a pound a week for example. This is so far from the reality of what it means to change your body and lose weight. The diet industry has been adept at exploiting this propensity for short-term fixes over long-term solutions. That’s why we see so many weight-loss strategies promising immediate results. Each of us are individuals, with different genes and environmental stressors. To adopt this new routine is challenging. It requires feeling hungry sometimes, and it takes a long time to see progress. Figure on at least 18 months to take off significant weight and a lifetime of restrained behavior after that to keep it off.  In order to lose weight, overweight and sick people have to embrace the journey. If you want to see the journey of hundreds of obese individuals, just go to websites like DietDoctor.com. Here you will see many before and after examples. The pictures do absolutely no justice to each of these people’s journeys but it gives a good perspective.

Eating once a day and not counting calories during festive times like holidays are important. It is a fact, that if a person eats but one meal a day, it is nearly impossible to consume an amount of food in one sitting that leads to obesity. French economic anthropologist Marcel Mauss, wrote that overeating during festive times, such as the holidays, is a distinctly human activity that creates trust among people and communities. It’s also greatly enjoyable. I can personally attest to this as I have lived about 5 years of my adult life in France.

A final point that is worth noting is to eat like you make big investments. Save up for that festive meal. Try fasting one or two days with coffee and bone broth and then eat that big family meal. The benefits of eating with your family cannot be overstated. If you ever want to explore the power of family and avoidance of heart disease, read about “The Roseto Effect.”

The key to occasions when we indulge is to treat them as debts that must be paid off. For every mini-feast, there needs to be a mini-fast. When we have a large lunch, we have learned to skip the next meal. If we know we have a heavy eating weekend coming up, we try to save up a pound or two in advance. Weighing up the present and future costs and benefits of our actions, as all good economists should.

Part of this article was adopted from the Wall Street Journal Article “Would Adam Smith Eat That Burger?”