To diet for: the art of wishful shrinking

My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people. Orson Welles

A waist is a terrible thing to mind. Tom Wilson

If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model. Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush. Dawn French

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ye diet. Lewis C. Henry


Dieting is a massive business, worth over $20bn in the US alone, where there are said to be more 100 million people on a diet. There are low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie and detox diets. Some, such as the Atkins diet, have become famous around the world but there are diets in all shapes and sizes. Wikipedia has a list of them. Here is just a small sample of the more bizarre ones:

Beverly Hills diet: An extreme diet which has only fruits in the first days, gradually increasing the selection of foods up to the sixth week.

Breatharian diet: A diet in which no food is consumed, based on the belief that food is not necessary for human subsistence.

Grapefruit diet: A fad diet, intended to facilitate weight loss, in which grapefruit is consumed in large quantities at meal times.

Israeli Army diet: An eight-day diet. Only apples are consumed in the first two days, cheese in the following two days, chicken on days five and six, and salad for the final two days. Despite what the name suggests, the diet is not followed by Israeli Defence Forces. It is considered a fad diet.

KE diet: A diet in which an individual feeds through a feeding tube and does not eat anything.

Subway diet: A crash diet in which a person consumes Subway sandwiches in place of higher calorie fast foods. Made famous by former obese student Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds after replacing his meals with Subway sandwiches as part of an effort to lose weight.

Tongue Patch diet: Stitching a Marlex patch to the tongue to make eating painful.

Why has dieting become so popular? One factor is modernity: we are living in such anomalous abundance. In the past it was the rich who were fat; it was a sign of status. Now it is often the poor who are overweight. There is undoubtedly an evolutionary mismatch – food with sugar and fat was essential for survival and those who stored it passed on their genes. This helped us survive in less abundant times, but it is now creating a health epidemic. There is research which suggests that high sugar foods are addictive. They cause dopamine to be released in our brains, and they actually impair cognitive function.

In the end we have to deal with the world we actually live in. I know what I should do, despite some contradictory advice and some fads, Michael Pollan’s advice is a good place to start:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But the psychology is complicated. We face an internal struggle between systems 1 and 2 of our brain. The reflective part knows what to do, but the emotional parts often override these noble intentions. Willpower is necessary in the face of instant gratification. We face what is an immediate pleasure and an indeterminate harm some time in the future.  Perhaps we need to look at how we frame advice. Fear is usually the mechanism chosen; you will have a miserable and a premature death. Maybe we need to focus on the benefits of a healthy diet, all the energy and vitality you will gain,

One interesting idea from economics is the commitment contract. The idea is that you make a pledge to achieve a goal. There is a website, founded by two Harvard economists,, where you can make these pledges. If you do not reach this target then you have to pay donate a specified amount of money to the person or organisation you specified. On the website the recipients are charities, but to really spice things up, it should be to organisations whose aims you despise. This gives an even stronger incentive to keep you word. The 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner, Tom Schelling, a key figure in game-theory analysis, suggested the American Nazi Party. As a sceptic I might plump for an organisation promoting homeopathy.

Temptation bundling involves together two activities together. One must be one you should do, but keep putting off, whereas the other one is you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. The term was coined by Katherine Milkman an operations and information management professor at Wharton Business School. Interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast Milkman suggested some of these consumption complementarities:

“So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favourite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favourite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of.”

This type of strategy could be applied to losing weight. In my own case I could do with losing around ten kilos. Maybe I should do a bit more exercise. It’s funny but I don’t drink coca cola. I’m not a fan of junk food. My problem is quantity, and I do eat too fast. I wish I could get nearer to Pollan’s advice. My intellectual brain understands that less is more, but my emotional brain has other ideas.


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