Automatic Weight Loss

Dr. Jason Fung
5 min readAug 11, 2021

We often think that we are in control of the decisions that we make, but behavioral psychology suggests otherwise. The Nobel Prize winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler in behavioral economics showed that humans are, as Dan Ariely put it, Predictably Irrational. Consider organ donation rates. In Germany there is about a 12% rate of organ donation. In neighbouring Austria, that rate is 99%. In Denmark the rate is 4% and in neighbouring Sweden it is 89%. The Danes and Swedes are very much similar in almost all respects, so why the huge discrepancy? The answer is that in Denmark, you check the box if you would like to opt into the organ donor program. In Sweden, you check the box if you would like to opt out of the organ donor program.

The difference does not lie in the people or their values. The difference is the default state. For the same reason, I signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime, and was automatically enrolled. Long after it ceased to be beneficial for me, I’m still a member. This phenomenon, of course, is well known. If a problem is too complex or overwhelming, then inertia takes over. When we don’t know what to do, we simply take the choice that’s already been made for us.

Complexity is the enemy of execution. As Tony Robbins writes “Knowing information is not the same as owning it and following through. Information without execution is poverty. Remember: we’re drowning in information, but we’re starving for wisdom”.

So, how is weight loss automatic in the 1970s and weight gain automatic in the 2000s? The problem is not the people, the problem is the ‘system’ or ‘default’. The biggest issue is that we see obesity as a ‘people’ problem, instead of a ‘system’ problem. For example, if more people are obese today than in the 1970s, then people today have less willpower. Does that even make any sense? This is what leads to ‘fat-shaming’.

So, the major difference between the 1970s and today is that the default today is ‘eating’ where the default in the 1970s is ‘not eating’. This, just like the organ donation issue, has overwhelming implications. In the 1970s, people would eat 3 times per day on average — breakfast, lunch and dinner. So people didn’t snack because that was something that just wasn’t done regularly. It took special effort to go out and get that snack. You didn’t eat in the office. You didn’t eat at your computer. You didn’t eat in the car. And most importantly, you didn’t think that snacking was something that was either necessary and…

Dr. Jason Fung

Nephrologist. New York Times best selling author. Interest in type 2 diabetes reversal and intermittent fasting. Founder

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