“You can never be too rich or too thin” is an old saying, often attributed to the Duchess of Windsor. Of course, it comes off as snooty — if she had coined it today, imagine her Twitter ratios. Here’s the thing, though: Body weight and net worth truly are intertwined, and research shows that the more pounds people carry, the less money they tend to have.
This works on different levels. Say you’re an obese 20-year-old who drops to a healthy weight. According to a 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University, your estimated lifetime savings in health care and productivity would be $28,020. For a 50-year-old, it’d be $36,278.
Jay Zagorsky, Ph.D., an economist and researcher at Ohio State University, has been examining the weight-wealth connection for more than a decade. His 2015 study, published in the Oxford Handbook of Economics and Human Biology, revealed this price tag:
Another factor that impacts your income: weight discrimination. Past research has shown that employers find heavier employees less desirable as coworkers and bosses. It works both ways: A German study of nearly 18,000 workers found that underweight men earn about 8 percent less than those in the upper end of the healthy BMI bracket. The effect was especially strong in blue-collar jobs.
Of course, no one’s waiting to write you a check when you hit your goal weight. But if you want to drop pounds and keep them off, bringing money into the equation looks like a smart play. Research shows that money can motivate people toward healthier behavior.
The amount at stake doesn’t even have to be sizable or guaranteed. A study in the journey Obesity found that participants in a weight-loss program who were promised varying financial incentives ($1 to $10 per week) for logging their progress on the program’s website dropped 49 percent more weight tan those who weren’t offered cash.
Looking at obesity through lenses like these can be a powerful new way to change thinking and finally get the body you want, some researchers contend.
“Sometimes people need a different and interesting way to think through a problem,” says economist Christopher Payne, Ph.D., coauthor of The Economists’ Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off. He and his colleague Rob Barnett lost a combined 120 pounds using basic monetary principles.
So whether you want to lose 10, 20, or 30-plus pounds, applying some behavioral economics could help you cash in. Payne and Barnett are living proof that the strategy works. Here’s how to do it.
Ignore supply, cut demand
“Economics was helpful for us because it provides the best explanation for being overweight,” explains Payne. “There is a glut of calorie-heavy food sold at cheap prices. Supply creates its own demand, which means many of us overeat.”
To break this cycle, realize that scarcity and plenty are perception, not reality, says Barnett. “We discovered that we really didn’t need all the food we perceived as necessary. Three square meals a day — what most people consider normal — was way too much. Once we realized that our perceptions were wrong, eating smaller meals every day was easier.”
Invest for the long-term
It may seem like a good idea to opt for bigger “value” meals and cheap calorie-heavy food; that way you feel like you’re maximizing your calorie intake per dollar spent and, quite possibly, saving money too. But long-term it’ll cost you more. Obesity and persistent excess weight is a leading cause of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; treatments for these and other obesity-related diseases are ultimately going to be very expensive. Resist the upselling and cheap deals; it’s bogus economics.
View weight like debt
Imagine if your doctor emailed you a statement every month, just like your credit card company does. It would show everything you bought (calories in) and what you owe in order to zero out your energy balance. You could make a minimum payment, but that would leave the remaining calories to compound, and we’ve all been down that sorry road. So after your next weekend of indulgence or summer vacation, gauge the damage and immediately resume exercising and eating healthy to pay off your debt. Make that your goal every month. Think of it as balancing your belly.
Check the market daily
Economists are all about data. That’s why Payne and Barnett weigh themselves every morning. “We discovered that our bodies are incredibly reactive to what we eat each day,” says Payne. “We can see one day’s eating behavior on the scale the following morning. Without being able to calibrate our eating behavior against our weight, we would never have understood how little we need to eat.”
Example: Barnett realized that eating pizza, more than any other food, affected his morning weight-ins. Now, he monitors how frequently he eats pizza and maintains his weight loss. “We stuck to good eating behavior because the number from the scale that morning was firmly implanted front and center in our minds,” says Payne.
Get to know your weight gain instigators (e.g. beer drinking, Sunday dinner at mom’s), and then manage them.
Announce your earnings
Letting the world know your weight-loss goals may help you achieve them. One study found that using a social media platform to announce your progress may help you drop more pounds. It keeps the pressure on you to continue the program, and all the virtual back-pats provide added incentive.
Pretend you’re losing money
For some, it may be better to turn the financial weight-loss equation around. Instead of focusing on how much your net worth will rise if you drop a few pants sizes, try focusing on the cash you’re losing, or will be losing, due to obesity-related problems. A 2016 study found that among overweight or obese adults, financial incentives for physical activity were most effective when framed as a monetary loss.