What Economics Can Teach Us About Dieting

What Economics Can Teach Us About Dieting by Max Gulker for Natural Blaze

I’m old enough to remember that when I was a child going on a diet meant something like “eat fewer calories and get some exercise.” The proliferation in the number and approaches of diets since the 1980s has likely resulted from a combination of scientific advancement, fundamental scientific limitations, the internet’s ability to reach people at a low cost, and countless developments across politics and culture. If that seems like a mouthful, consider just how many diets you’ve heard about in the last 20 years.

First are the diets that where something on the back label is  “the enemy,” at best a necessary evil to be counted and limited at almost all costs. I can remember that enemy being cholesterol, then fat, then carbs, often with contradictory prescriptions for what people should eat. Then there are the diets that try to trigger some specific bodily process–to name just a few, the keto diet, the glycemic index diet, and most recently intermittent fasting.

We also have what I’ll call the “identity diets.” Last Friday was World Vegan Day, which was like throwing water on the grease fire of social media exchanges between vegans and carnivores. I don’t have a horse in that race, but considering these vituperative all-meat/no-meat exchanges are never far from the top of my Twitter feed, plenty of people I know do.

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I call these identity diets because there’s generally some worldview over and above physiology that the diet is meant to affirm. Identity dieters run the gamut from believing meat is destroying the world to believing vegans are destroying society.

The thing is, adherents to all the examples above and dozens more come armed with both theory and data to explain why they’re right and everyone else is wrong. What’s going on here?

Curse of Complexity

I’m perpetually amazed at how many fellow economists I’ve heard use these contradictory results about nutrition as somehow impugning the practice of science in general, as though telling us the best thing to eat in a couple of sentences is something the field is “supposed to” be able to do.

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