Saturday 15 December 2018

Slim down: shrink your waistline with The Economists' Diet

Two economists shed nearly 10 stone by applying financial expertise to their eating, writes Niamh Horan

Weight loss: Left, Chris Payne shed four stone while pal Rob Barnett, right, lost five-and-a-half stone
Weight loss: Left, Chris Payne shed four stone while pal Rob Barnett, right, lost five-and-a-half stone
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It was a cold January morning in 2004 when JP Morgan stockbroker Chris Payne stepped on the scales. It had been a Christmas of wining and dining in fancy restaurants and he had rounded off with a takeaway curry when the horror of the number clicked beneath his nose: 15 stone 10lb. He recalls: "I just thought: 'Enough! This has got to stop.'"

Not knowing where to turn, he called on the only area of expertise he had: economics. And he decided to apply the principles he learned to track and manage money to his waistline. Within a year he had shed four stone and - 14 years later - it has stayed off.

At a new job in Bloomberg in Washington DC, Chris shared his story with colleague Rob Barnett. Rob had just come off a TV appearance, bemoaning his obese appearance and was blaming his poor metabolism. But Chris told him to give up the excuses and imparted the economic dieting principles to give him a push. Rob shed five-and-a-half stone and kept it off. Together the pair fine-tuned their method and wrote The Economists' Diet.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, Chris shared his main principles:

1 Know your number

The economist Peter Drucker says: "You can't measure what you don't know." The golden rule for managing your finances is to check your bank account the moment you wake up. Similarly, to manage your weight, weigh yourself every morning. Conventional thinking says you shouldn't but we believe that is 100pc wrong.

The connection we have noticed between our behaviour one day and our weight the following morning is stunning. The power of the number in the morning to keep you on the straight and narrow during the day is intense. It works because it reminds you of what you are doing and what you can - or more importantly - can't afford.

2 Balance your budget

Back in the day when I was a banker I would go out for big lunches with friends who were generally slim. I always thought they were blessed with a quick metabolism, but after speaking with them about it I realised they weren't eating a lot again for the rest of the day. Slim people naturally adopt this behaviour.

Now if I know I am having a big lunch, I will have a small breakfast and dinner. Pay off the calorie debt afterwards. If you spend too much you have got to cut spending, if you have eaten too much, then skip your next meal or make sure it is light.

3 Abundance and scarcity

The 1970s revolution in food preservation, an abundance of cheap and high-calorie foods and rising incomes have all led to a classic case of market failure: unbounded demand and an unlimited supply of food. To counteract this, dieting is a self-imposed austerity. However, scarcity (hunger pangs) can act like what economists call a "bandwidth tax on thinking" leading to short-sighted, stupid decisions. Being short of money and rolling over pay-day loans is the equivalent mistake of grabbing a chocolate bar an hour before lunch - don't leave yourself too short-changed and have a healthy snack before you get too hungry. Knowing your weight each day can also act as a powerful motivator.

4 The meta-rule

This is a term borrowed from behavioural economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. I know businessmen who eat out in restaurants a lot and have the ability in the face of peer pressure to say, "You know what: I have a rule, which is to only eat fish and only have fruit or a sorbet for dessert". So rather than having to make a decision every time they go out, they say 'this is my rule' and it sort of sits above all the decisions they have to make. You can have a tonne of different versions, like skipping the breadbasket or saying no to carbs, so whatever works for you.

5 Variety is bad for your waistline

The more we have of something, the enjoyment we get from the last unit of what we just consumed gradually decreases. But in our consumerist world we are constantly inundated by opportunities to try something new.

This constant search for new taste means that the enjoyment from each thing we are tasting we want to have more of it because it is stimulating. The same breakfast every day might get boring but you know what? You won't over-eat it!

It's the same with a lunch of grilled chicken and veg - it's nice but I am not tempted to overeat it and it's healthy long term. That then leaves room for enjoying the really unhealthy food when I want to from time to time as a special treat. Any diet that says give up your favourite food is doomed to failure.

6 Data symmetry

'Information asymmetry' is a concept in economics that is one of the reasons the financial crisis happened, ie: the banks knew too little about the borrowers.

A lot of economic problems arise because we don't have enough information on one side of the transaction, so as a consumer of food when we don't know what is in the food you that causes problems. You can solve this data asymmetry problem by weighing yourself every day to connect behaviour to the effects and also being calorie conscious. When the information is there, use it to 'nudge' yourself to a better position. I live in the 'good enough' world. I haven't got a perfect physique I could probably still lose a few pounds but that's good enough for me. I just need to eat well enough to keep myself on the straight and narrow. It's what you do most of the time that counts.

Published by Hay House, The Economists' Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off is out now. Also see

Read more: Foodie resolutions - tips from Ireland's top foodies on healthy eating for 2018 

Read more: Ultimate fit food from Gordon Ramsay 

Some Micro and Macro tips from The Economist Diet Check-List

Just like planning to save money for a year, prepare to spend about 18 months to lose 50lb from your waist. There are no quick fixes.

I have a simple rule about eating to lose weight - salad, or a veggie-rich equivalent, must become the default meal choice.

Resist all upselling - in other words where you reach the counter at the cinema or fast-food joint, order a small drink and meal and are told you can get a medium - 50pc more - for a few more cents. But it's not a bargain. People can see it makes good economic sense, but fail to consider the long-term cost to their health. In fact, order kid-sized fast-food portions if you can.

Buyer beware: remember that the consumer is sovereign in the marketplace, not a puppet whose strings are there to be pulled by marketers. Be sceptical of food marketing campaigns, especially those using the word 'lite'.

Buy your groceries online to curb those little impulse purchases you can't help when buying in a store.

Budget for special occasions: save up calories in advance, pay off calorie debts afterwards.

Choose your splurges carefully: don't waste calories on food you don't really enjoy.

Sunday Independent

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