Can obesity be explained through simple economics?

It looks so good, but at what cost? | Source: Wikimedia

Most economists refer to their science as that of “incentives.” A human being does something only if they see benefit. Every decision that a human being makes is, thus, driven by incentives.

But should decisions be seen as static, despite time, or dynamic, with it?

I’m attempting to complete a course on Public Policy, with an emphasis on Technology. One of the core components is Economics, defined as the base of all policy. I tend not to disagree there.

In one of the concepts shared, there was a study about the incentives of food, defined as the link between “taste perception” and obesity. The study published in The Journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics aimed to show that obese people perceived taste differently than their “normal” and “overweight” counterparts, through the economic principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility [DMU].

For the uninitiated, DMU is a concept of decreasing utility to the consumer based on increasing units of consumption. Think over-eating, muscle soreness, and alcohol poisoning.

Just chocolate

The experiment was simple. 290 participants broken down as 161 normal adults [BMI<25], 78 overweight adults [BMI between 25–30] and 51 obese adults [BMI>30] were given as much chocolates as they could stomach. After the consumption of each unit of chocolate they were given a questionnaire to quantify “taste perception.”

Based on the Randomized Control Trial [RCT] the researchers concluded, obese people started the trial with “higher levels of perceived taste” and with every piece of chocolate consumed experienced “slower rates of decline” compared to the other groups.


The chart above shows the gulf of difference between obese, overweight and normal adults in terms of “Average Reported Taste” per unit of chocolate consumed. Notice how the “taste perception” for overweight and normal participants were similar and vastly disproportionate than the obese participants.

Cannot resist

At first, this does play into the notion that “eating can feel hard to stop” as the reporting website concluded. But, in my [non-economist] opinion, it misses the point.

This piece is not a rebuttal, or a rebuke, but a [personal penned] understanding of the concept of economics and exercise.

Healthy, or “normal” individuals had a low perception of taste, compared to the obese individuals because, in part, they looked at the complete picture.

The chocolates consumed were not seen as static i.e. the consumption of it at this point will have no effect in the future. But seen as dynamic, chocolate consumed now will add [unhealthy] calories with no/little [beneficial] nutritional content.

On a nutrition-caloric budgetary scale, the chocolates, or rather the increased and unnecessary consumption of chocolate, was not a calculated move.

Check your budget

For an economist [which I am not], perhaps this could be seen through the lens of marginal cost [MC] i.e. the cost of producing one more unit.

From a nutritional sense, the marginal cost of consumption of an additional unit of chocolate is calories that have to be burnt off. To put that in exercise terms, it could be additional minutes on the treadmill, few more reps on the bench press, or an extra session of yoga.

The marginal cost, hence, outweighed the marginal benefit [MB] of consumption of an additional unit of chocolate, hence, consumption dropped with time.

Here, you could also say that the taste “perceived” was dwarfed by the cost of that taste i.e. the caloric consumption of the chocolate, which will have to be burnt off eventually.

Every piece of chocolate eaten, for those that look at diet and exercise as a budgetary concept of nutrition and calories, was seen as calories taken in, from a bank of calories burnt out.

The “normal” individuals saw the larger picture. They weighed their marginal cost-marginal benefit budget and made an informed decision.

Calculating excuses

From an economic perspective, the obese individuals either saw the marginal cost as not too high or simply did not care. I cannot make an adequate or informed judgment on their behavior.

However, what I can say is that they do not “perceive” taste differently. That’s an excuse. Obese individuals do not consider the marginal cost of additional consumption and hence the taste is amplified, because it comes at no additional cost.

The study rightly used the suffix “perception” with taste, which shows that taste is different for different individuals. Normal individuals simply look at taste through a dynamic lens, on a scale that also measures the caloric-cost, nutritional-content, and the energy-spent on burning it off.

Yes, taste does play a “role in overeating and obesity,” as the website stated, because the individuals affected do not weigh the marginal cost of the food they eat, and the benefit received.

Economic Principles should be used to make calculated decisions, not excuses.

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.

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