2 formerly obese economists lost a combined 120 pounds in 18 months — and a ‘boring diet’ was one of their core tricks

Weight loss and economics might be more closely related than you'd think. Pictured is Rob Barnett, who lost 75 pounds in 18 months.

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Weight loss and economics might be more closely related than you’d think. Pictured is Rob Barnett, who lost 75 pounds in 18 months.
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Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

  • The key to weight loss and weight management is sticking to a boring diet, say Rob Barnett and Christopher Payne.
  • Barnett and Payne are formerly obese economists and the authors of “The Economists’ Diet.”
  • Research backs them up: People seem to eat less when they eat the same foods every day.
  • Still, some variety in your diet is important for overall health.

“A boring diet is a slimming diet.”

So says Rob Barnett, an economist and a co-author of “The Economists’ Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping it Off.”

In the book, Barnett and another economist, Christopher Payne, explain how it’s possible to lose a significant amount of weight using fundamental principles of economics, the same way they did.

Both Barnett and Payne were once obese. Payne lost about 45 pounds in 18 months; years later, Barnett lost 75 pounds in 18 months.

I spoke with Barnett and Payne in January, and they told me that, to this day, one of their best weight-management tricks is sticking to a relatively monotonous diet.

Barnett said it goes back to the concept of diminishing returns.

To use his 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 authors said they eat a salad for lunch every weekday. Not only is it a nutritious meal – but as Payne said, “I’ve gotten to like salads over the years, but I don’t have the urge to overeat a salad.”

And when Payne goes to Starbucks, he orders an Americano with a dash of nonfat milk.

Science suggests eating similar types of food every day can help with weight loss

Behind Barnett and Payne’s argument is a growing body of scientific evidence on the role of habituation – i.e. getting used to something – in weight loss.

One small study, published 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that obese and non-obese women between ages 20 and 50 ate less when they were given the same food (macaroni and cheese) five days in a row. By contrast, another group that was presented with the same macaroni and cheese once a week for five weeks ended up eating more over time.

Another small study, published 2013 in the journal Appetite, yielded similar findings in children between ages eight and 12. Interestingly, kids who were given a similar macaroni and cheese dish decreased their consumption as much as kids who were given the same macaroni and cheese dish. And both groups lost more weight than kids who were given a variety of meals.

Some amount of nutritional variety is still important for overall health

The “similar” bit above is key here: You probably don’t want to eat exactly the same foods every single day of your life, even if you might wind up slimmer.

As Alexandra Duron reported for Greatist, when you eat the same thing every day, you’re necessarily missing out on certain nutrients. Duron also cites a study, published 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition, suggesting that nutritional variety is associated with a smaller chance of developing metabolic syndrome, or risk factors for issues including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

A sensible middle ground between a Groundhog Day diet and complete variety appears in a recent New York Magazine feature, in which David Katz, the director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and columnist Mark Bittman answer common questions about nutrition.

Asked whether it’s OK to eat the same thing every day, they recommend eating the same type of meals every day – and being more creative at dinnertime.

As they suggested: “So, for instance, how about whole grains (hot or cold), mixed fruits, and nuts for breakfast – every day? Then, how about a salad, soup, or stew of mixed vegetables and beans or lentils for lunch? And then for dinner, a wholesome variety of choices.”