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The Economics of Weight Control

But why do I do it? This is a question that many, if not all of us, have asked at some point. We have goals for ourselves and a nice mental picture of our ideal physique. Yet we still take actions that lead us away from those goals. For all the talk of p-ratios, body types, and carbs, an individual’s physique is mostly a result of individual choices. As a consequence, economics, a science that studies how individuals use limited resources to attain alternative ends, can provide unique insight into the actions and forces that cause individuals to stray from their goals or even become excessively overweight.

In recent years, behavioral economists have done significant research in this field, most of it falling under what has been called the Economics of Obesity. What I am presenting here is a summary of their findings as applicable to the bodybuilding and health-conscious community, so that we might better understand our own choices. Even if it fails to help you make the “right” choices, at least you’ll never have to ask“why did I do it?” again.

Internalities: Or Why I Want to Go Back In Time and Punch Myself

What does it mean to have a “self-control” problem? As a consumer in the wonderful world of the materialism, you are constantly facing tradeoffs between short-term pleasure and long-term health. However it seems that these trade-offs often err systematically on the side of the short-term. Some people have suggested this is a result of modern culture, with its emphasis on instant gratification, but this observation is short-sighted at best. It seems unreasonable to think people had much better self control hundreds of years ago, or even back before appetite suppressants and sugar-free Jell-O.

In many ways, you are not the person you were 10 years ago. You may be similar to that person – you have the same name, same genes, perhaps some similar interests. However, I think for most people it is easy to think of even more ways in which you are different. Most importantly, you have different opinions on what would have been the best thing for the you of 10 years ago to be doing. Every day, we make decisions that will result in internalities – positive or negative consequences to your future self. Many times you may have the well-being of your future self in mind. Many times you do not.

An internality is any effect that you have on yourself as a result of your actions. An internality is not the direct reason for that action, but a resultant byproduct, I suppose we could say. If you love to run sprints and just happen to have a great physique because of it, that’s a positive internality of sprinting. If you love to eat and just happen to get fat because of it, that’s a negative internality. People commit negative internalities because they feel that the benefits outweigh the costs – and most people have some idea of the potential costs to doing most things.

The problem lies in that the future costs are often discounted very heavily when compared to current gains. Everything in the future is discounted. Many times, it makes a lot of sense to discount the future as such – money now is worth more than money later if there is a positive interest rate, after all. $10 million at once is certainly worth more than $100K a year over 100 years, since you probably won’t even live to see those benefits. Many times, a hamburger now may be worth the distant cost of potential weigh gain. The rest of this article will examine why people are filled with so much regret about overeating. The reason for this lies in the fact that those times overeating is actually worth it are much fewer than your hunger-influenced mind would like you to believe.

Understanding internalities begins to elucidate some of the reasons why people overeat, diet, train, or get wasted and at what frequency they might undertake said activities.

Eating on the Margin

Internalities, however, are only part of the puzzle. We have established now that people are not perfectly continuous with respect to their own preferences, and people tend to err systematically on the side of the present self rather than their future self. However, we invest in the future in many ways as well. Why is it so different when it comes to our physique? Why do so many people who truly want to be in shape struggle so mightily with an inability to commit to diet and training?

You’ve thought about it: what’s one more bite going to hurt? You know you can do 4 more reps before failure, but how much is it going to hurt to do only do 1 more? How much better are 10 400m sprints than 8? The list goes on and on.

In economics, we say that a person will undertake an action if the marginal benefit (in terms of utility) is greater than, or equal to, the marginal cost. That is to say you will do a little more of something if the kicks you get from it outweigh the costs. We call this the Equimarginal Principle, and it is one of the most central ideas of the science. But if your choices are made up of very small actions that are easy to forget, easy to ignore, and easy to misestimate, how can you make a rational decision?

Zen and the Art of Estimation

Admit it: you don’t know everything. You can’t eyeball a sandwich from 10 feet away and give its macronutrient breakdown. You can’t go for a workout and tell me how many calories you burned and how much hypertrophy you’re going to have. You might, however, be able to give me an estimate. And in the end, those estimates might have pretty close to a zero error, in the sense that the overestimates and underestimates “cancel each other out.” We tend to be pretty good at that, actually.

But we are pretty bad at it when it comes to small things. It is often hard, or impossible, to ask someone details about a bite of food they had, or a few reps they did. At some point, even the most meticulous of us resort to rounding and we assume it just doesn’t matter. I am not disputing that – obviously the costs exceed the benefits when it comes to micromanaging every aspect of your diet and training. The problem is, most of where we err is on the small stuff. The one or two extra bites. The one or two fewer sets. The little stuff.

The Eater’s Curse

Sometimes, something is just as good as you thought it would be. Rarely, it is better. Most often, it’s worse. This leads, in a roundabout way, to a discussion of the Winner’s Curse, an economic phenomenon originating in auction theory. It states that the winner of an auction will, on average, lose money because auction winners are those who have systematically overestimated the value of what is being auctioned. Without getting into too much technical detail here, I will explain what it has to do with overeating.

When you go to eat a piece of pizza, or drink another pint of that golden nectar known as Beer, you have some estimation of the true worth to you and some estimation as to the costs of its consumption. Many times you will decide that it is better to abstain from the deliciousness. Sometimes however, you may go ahead with yo’ bad self. What makes these times different? Why not just do one all the time? It may be that the times you choose to eat badly are the ones where the benefit is the highest or the costs are low – maybe you feel like your positive partitioning capacity is really great at that moment, or you are just extra fucking hungry. The most likely reason, though? The times you choose to eat something very bad are the times when in actuality you most overestimated the benefits and most underestimated the drawbacks.

This is why, among the health-conscious, bad eating is often followed by feelings of regret almost immediately. Life is filled with disappointments. It is usually best to give yourself some time to realize this – impulse eating is one of the main culprits to failed fat loss plans.

Putting it all Together

So, now you know that you don’t always have the interest of your future self in mind, it doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as it feels good to eat another potato chip, we are pretty bad at guessing how good or bad things are, and often what we think will be good is not nearly as good as we guessed. Add this to the fact that the work on human physiology is nowhere near being a mature literature, and confusion arises about what the optimal option for maximizing your physique. What you have is a formula for failure: we see the benefits of now and have a hard time caring about a future that we don’t really know about. We act irrationally in the sense that we are not maximizing total utility over time; we are caught in a cycle of mistakes, regrets, and overcompensation through relatively extreme diets followed by more overeating. This is a common pattern even in people who are in very good shape.

Do I have a solution? Of course not, but I hope I gave you a few ideas. The standard solution to the Winner’s Curse in auctions is to make an estimation of the true worth and put in a bid that is lower than that. Likewise, before eating something that you saw Lee Priest eating in the off season, you should adjust for the Winner’s Curse: realize it will probably not be as good as you imagined and you are likely overlooking some costs, and then decide whether or not to eat it. Realize that you are probably ignoring negative internalities more than you should, and try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – your future self, that is – more often than you do. Consider that at the margin it may not seem that bad to cheat a little bit or eat a little bit, but that you are probably underestimating the costs, and this systematic underestimation will likely lead to a significant loss to your long-term goals. Furthermore, if you do make a mistake, it does not necessarily make sense to punish yourself for it. Pick up and move on. What’s done is done: economists call these sunk costs.

Understanding how we go wrong is the first step to staying on the path to a great physique and greater well-being.

Further Reading

Papers in Weight Management Economics:

USDA Conference on the Economics of Obesity:

Ludwig von Mises on Time Preference Theory:

Chou, S.-Y., M. Grossman, and H. Saffer. 2002. “An Economic Analysis of Adult Obesity: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.” NBER Working Paper Series 9247.