Believe and Obey

A Radical Christian Perspective on the World's News & Current Events

Diets & Time Preference

Economics to the Dietary Rescue

As it is mid-January, and therefore the time when some of our New Year’s resolutions may still be extant, this seems like an ideal time to dive into the thorny topic of diets.  This is a perennial goal toward the top of almost everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions, other than you out there who are naturally, perpetually thin, talk about injustice!

This is also a goal that typically goes by the boards by the end of the month.  Most who have go down this road have tried it all.  Slim-Fast, Weight Watchers (now rebranded as WW), Nutrisystem, GOLO, and even for those of a certain age, Deal-A-Meal, or one of Richard Simmons other dietary iterations.  What then, can we possibly add to this storied litany of failure?

While admitting that the ultimate answer is a mindset, perhaps economics can teach us something that will help change our mindset.  At the very least economics may have some insights that can help us see where our biases lie, and that in, and of itself can be helpful.

What is Time Preference?

Simply put, time preference is the innate desire of humans to consume sooner, rather than later. Other things being equal, everyone on the planet would rather consume sooner rather than later.  Obviously, things are not always equal.  If given enough of a reason, people will defer consumption until later.  What would that reason be?  The answer is the ability to consume more at a later period.  The way this is measured in money terms is interest.  Interest is the thing that causes people to be willing to wait to consume.  Most people conceive of interest as the price of money, but it really is the price of time; how much will you pay me to defer my consumption?  Thus, interest is a thing that is hard-wired into the DNA of all of humanity.  Its existence is what gives rise to the accumulation of capital.  People defer consumption, save resources and use those resources to produce even more goods.  Interest is the payment to savers for having to wait to consume and is critical in the formation of capital; capital being another name for tools which make labor more productive.  This increase in productivity is the only way humanity can become materially wealthier.  Time preference sits at the heart of the wealth creation process.

Everyone has a different time preference.  The aggregate can be expressed as a market interest rate, but each person’s preference is unique.  To have a high time preference means that you want things sooner.  Therefore, to entice a high time preference person to defer consumption you would need a relatively high interest rate.  If you have a low time preference, then you are more easily persuaded to wait to consume and would likely be enticed with a lower interest rate.

We all know people who have high time preference; that ne’er do well relative that can never seem to bank any money, in spite of a decent job.  Or the co-worker who is always blowing their paycheck within a couple days of payday.  We have also all been exposed to the class of people with the highest time preference of all, children.  We see it in the store when a child is grabbing at everything they see as they walk by or screaming that they cannot live without what has just caught their eye. I remember clearly when my daughter wanted a computer for Christmas, and we gently suggested that it was kind of expensive.  That’s all right she told us; I’ll just ask Santa.  That’s going straight to the Grand Poohbah of the high time preference set.  Those children with the highest time preference of all are infants.  Their time preference approaches the infinite.  They want everything all at once right now.  Now let’s apply this to a noneconomic situation, diets.

Applying the Economic to the Noneconomic

The notion of time preference, while applied mostly to economics, is not really an economic concept at all.  It is really a concept that is hard wired into the human brain.  It is a part of who we are as a species.  This means that we can take this most useful concept and apply it to non-economic situations. 

In this case diets.  If we think about why we eat too much, the answer is easily seen.  It feels good to do so.  There is no point in denying the truth of this.  Food is good.  More food is better.  Obviously anyone that has gone on an eating binge knows that there is a point of diminishing returns.  The similarities to alcohol consumption come readily to mind.  There is even such a thing as a food hangover.  I know, I’ve been there.  This is notably the case with excessively sweet foods doused with refined sugar.  It is easier than we like to admit, as a comedian stated, to eat, not until you are full, but until you hate yourself.

What occurs when we do this kind of eating is a mindless consumption.  We may be hungry, likely we are at first.  Or perhaps we are angry, or lonely, or tired.  Maybe we are a combination of all four.  The end result is that we put our eating on autopilot, because at that particular moment it feels good.

If however, we pause and apply a little time preference to the situation we may be able to help ourselves.  We want to consume now.  Unless, that is, we gain something greater by deferring our consumption.  That something greater is less weight, looking better, feeling better, and having lower risk for adverse health outcomes.  What is needed is to train our brains to think about these better outcomes that can be ours if we consider deferring our consumption.  To utilize the language of economics, we need to lower our time preference.  We need to focus more on the good outcomes that deferred consumption will bring and less on the good feeling we will have now due to increased consumption.

It is really the same process we should go through when thinking about spending money.  Do we need to go out to dinner 4 times per week, if we want to buy a house?  It certainly feels good to spend money now, but we can have a greater good if we wait.  It may be a house, it may be a higher income in retirement, or the ability to retire sooner.  In any event, the thought process is the same.

Simple, Yet Hard

So, there, that solves the problem right?  Now you can go forth and lose weight the way you always wanted to.  Not exactly.  The process of lowering your time preference is not complicated, but it is not easy.  This is like most things in life; loving you neighbor as yourself, not coveting, or not judging.  These are all simple things to conceptualize, yet hard as a heart attack to accomplish. 

The same is true of lowering your time preference to help you make better food choices.  It becomes like anything else a discipline, a manner of thinking, and a habit.  These kinds of things take time.  There are a myriad of ways to build new habits.  Put up post it notes, tape a sign on the refrigerator, build time into each day to meditate on thinking in terms of time preference and the greater goods you will get by consuming less now.  Hey, do this right after your prayer time-you are praying every day, right?

None of this makes obsolete the standard tools that we use to lose weight.  There is still a need for portion control, supplements, a calorie counter, and the ever-useful food scale.  Thinking about time preference is just an additional tool to help with this goal.  Taking time preference into account has the added benefit of being financially useful, and making us think more clearly about economic policy. 

It is my prayerful hope that a little economic insight like time preference can assist you in whatever goal you have set for yourself, and make you a better steward of all that God has given you.  If it does help you lose weight, and people ask how you did it, just tell them you went on the wonk diet.

Praise Be to God

Related Posts

Scroll to Top