I might be a genius.

And I don’t even have a PHD.

For years I have thought, relatively speaking, that it was much easier to give up smoking than it was to lose weight.

And now I have science to back me up.

According to published reports only 8% of Bermudians smoke. But the figures soar when it comes to a more weighty problem. 

According to Bermuda’s Health Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin “36 percent of our adult population is overweight and 34 per cent are obese. 

That’s 70 per cent who are overweight or obese,” she said.

And our younger population is getting fatter as well. As our kids settle into the new academic year, it might be wise to help them leave school with less weight than they entered.

Although there are as many reasons for obesity, one new book suggests a common denominator for its cause. Scarcity. Or, Having less than you feel you need. 

If we give up smoking all we want is a cigarette.

If we are thirsty, all we can think of is water.

If we are dieting our mind is consumed with food.

The two go hand in hand say the authors of Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir of Princeton say scarcity has a profound effect on our brain and our behaviour.

Scarcity takes our brain hostage, focuses it on our obsession and reduces or “clogs up” mental capacity or what the authors call our mental “Bandwidth.”

The authors say: “psychologists measure the impact of this clogging on various tasks: logical and spatial reasoning, self-control, problem solving, and absorption and retention of new information.

Bandwidth

“Together these tasks measure “bandwidth,” the resource that underlies all higher-order mental activity. Inevitably, dieters do worse than non dieters on all these tasks; they have less bandwidth.”

How thrilling to find that my ongoing compulsion to sneak forbidden cookie dough straight from a freezer bag was completely reasonable. Because of its scarcity, the object of my desire became paramount in my brain crowding out everything else, including self-control.

Shafir and Mullainathan describe a scenario as illustration: A dieter is sitting at a conference table facing colleagues and a plate of cookies. He plays a mental game with himself making the case for and against indulging in the tasty treats.

This exhausting tit for tat process actually, one, strains his brain and two, diverts his attention from  the task at hand, the meeting, so learning is stopped.

Denial

Any form of denial requires restraint, of course, and   I am not suggesting that when you stop smoking you will not still crave a cigarette, but the act of quitting smoking is fairly straightforward and perhaps a relatively easy task. You must simply refuse to pick up a cigarette. 

This is very different from dieting. You can’t simply “quit” food. You must eat to survive.

And as Shakespeare said, “ay, there lies the rub.”With dieting you must make decisions all the time about calorie count, portion control, and food choices. It basically overtakes the brain, like a virus, reducing “bandwidth.”

But what about a solution?

What Shafir and Mullainathan’s work suggests is the value of KISS or “Keep It Simple Stupid.” 

Make one decision. “I will not eat sweets, or, I will not go for seconds. Or, I will eat the same but also run five miles.” 

Reducing the complexity of the task at hand is what is necessary for success say the authors. And this philosophy might explain the popularity of the low carbohydrate Atkins diet. 

Like refusing to pick up another cigarette, all you have to do with Atkins is follow one simple directive: Don’t eat the white stuff. 

That is a whole lot easier than counting calories, measuring proportions and making sensible food choices all the while in the throes of an Oreo Cookie craving crisis.

There is no thinking there. The result: Increased “bandwidth” to use for self control and other tasks.

These findings have a broader application as well. Scarcity, whether it be too little income, too few friends, or too little food when we are dieting changes behaviour by focusing us on our obsession. Focus can be beneficial in some ways, but prove hugely distracting in others.

The authors don’t contend that their approach is a magic bullet for obesity, poverty or loneliness, just that it might be part of the solution.