January 7th, 2011

Losing weight is one of the top New Year’s resolutions – justifiably so. 60% of Australians plan to lose weight (and that was before their cricket team was crushed by England in the Ashes series, gloat gloat). Eating less and exercising more is slow and boring: hence the appetite (sic) for miracle diets.

Let me add one. It’s expensive, inconvenient, and I have no evidence for it: in this market, these are features not bugs. Here we go: airline meals. Just find a trade supplier at your nearest hub airport, and talk them into sending you a daily supply. Air France or Royal Thai business class if you can get them.

Airline meals are small. The specifications are set by the airlines, and they are not telling, but the calorie count is obviously low. Passengers don’t complain. The airline catering managers are presumably trying to see how little food they can get away with, and it isn’t much. How do they get away with it? Partly because in pure sedentary conditions, we are satiated with far less than we are in the habit of eating. Partly because the meal-let is presented in three tiny courses: salad, main course, dessert, often cheese as well. So it feels like a “proper meal” not a snack.

The scheme seems to work for aircrew. Cabin staff are quite active physically, but flight crew are as sedentary as passengers, and you don’t see many fatties among them. (Leave aside for the moment the regular and draconian medicals.)

I see no reason why the scheme shouldn’t work at home. To the very limited extent diets are effective, they work by a combination of displacing seriously bad-for-you stuff, and psychological trickery including placebo effects. So all diets fail for most, and work for a few. Whatever does it for you.

Matt Yglesias has lost weight – his sensible tips here. I do quibble at his True Grit advice to drink hard liquor instead of beer. Surely the calorie content of booze is all in the ethanol, unless you go for frightful girly stuff with lots of free sugar? And for a given ethanol intake, the more fluid the better. Basically, reduce the ethanol.

Another idea worth trying is Ian Ayres’ prior-commitment scheme. You make a bet with yourself, and pay a real cost if you backslide.

PS: The real airline meal I describe is a vanishing thing. Budget airlines in Europe sell you food on board: fair enough, except that the selection is dire. Instant soup if you are lucky.

I came across the best solution once when flying from Frankfurt to West Berlin in the old days. Legally, it was an international flight – four-power agreement and all that -, so Lufthansa were or felt obliged to offer food for the 45-minute hop. On the other hand, Bonn’s political line was that West Berlin was an integral part of the Bundesrepublik. The political triangulation resulted in a self-service sandwich buffet in the boarding lounge: pack your own brown bag. Fine. Why isn’t this done more? The cost savings would be so enormous that the airlines could offer first-rate ingredients – truffle pâté, smoked trout, fresh strawberries – and still come out well ahead.

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11 Responses to “The Amazing RBC®©™ New Year’s Diet!”

  1. nikkibong says:

    domestic flights on the legacy carriers in the US also sell food. all international flights still offer free meals, though; usually 2, sometimes 3, depending on whether you’re crossing the atlantic or pacific.

  2. LizardBreath says:

    Beer is high-calorie for the alcohol content, at least if you’re drinking the kind that tastes like anything. Yglesias is right about drinking hard liquor — if you’re worried about dehydration, drink water on the side, or no-calorie mixers like club soda.

  3. ack ack ack says:

    Watch the sodium-content if you aren’t exercising and have a history or concern about heart-disease.

  4. Prior commitment is definitely a winner. Right now I’m signed up to go the gym for a coached session at noon, and I can’t cancel without a fair amount of hassle. I did this because I paid a small but significant fraction of my disposable income for the privilege of twice-weekly sessions, so I don’t want to go a week without using them up. In the last 18 months I’ve missed probably two paid-for sessions (my weakness has been when I’m “between months” and can slack off without financial penalty).

    As for diet, I’ve been reading a little (perhaps too much) Gary Taubes, particularly his new book “Why We Get Fat (And What to Do About It)”. He makes a pretty convincing argument that overeating (i.e. gluttony and sloth) is one of the results of getting fat, rather than its cause, much as overeating (in families of ordinary means) is a result, not a cause, of a child’s growth (no one would say that a child is growing quickly because he’s eating so much). I refer you to the free Kindle sample that lays it out better than I can.

    As for booze versus beer, for many people diets seem to work to the extent that the restrict carbohydrates (even calorie-restricted low-fat diets will tend to dispense with some amount carbohydrates, the junkiest ones first). Hard liquor has very few carbohydrates, whereas beer has a not-inconsequential amount of maltose in it (about 15g for a microbrew). Of course frightfully girly drinks are the worst by far. Per unit alcohol, booze is practically carb-free; particularly if you’re consciously restricting carbs, liquor is the way to go.

  5. RSA says:

    I came across the best solution once when flying from Frankfurt to West Berlin in the old days.

    This was typical (also in the old days) when I used to take morning commuter flights between Munich and Cologne. You’d arrive at the gate and pull a little bag of breakfast stuff out of a cooler as you boarded the plane. If I remember correctly, it’s still done. I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t more common in the States.

  6. bdbd says:

    On the infrequent occasions that I fly internationally, I pre order the Hindu meal, which is always tastier and more interesting than more familiar (to me) fare. There’s also the pleasure of that brief moment when the flight attendants come down the aisle with my tasty meal, and are confused to be delivering it to a pasty middle aged white guy.

  7. Alex F says:

    Calories, alcohol, and carbohydrates in different beers:

    Eyeing the chart, there’s a little under 10g of carbohydrates in a regular 12 oz lager, about 15g in an ale, and 3 or 4 in a “light.” 4 calories per gram. So, 2 drinks, maybe 80 or so extra calories in beer versus unsweetened cocktails?

  8. Jeff J says:

    What LizardBreath said.

    Any halfway decent beer has lots of carbs (balanced, of course, by lots of hops). A pint of a proper scotch ale might have 500 calories. Oddly, it is the frightfully girly beers that lack sugars.

  9. Mrs Tilton says:

    No pick-’em-up-at-the-gate boxed breakfasts/lunches on domestic German flights these days, at least not that I’ve seen, and I fly FRA-MUC maybe 6-8 times a year. Lufthansa give you (in petit-bourgeois class) a sort of mini-version of the mini-meal James describes (it’s usually not that bad) or (in lumpenproletariat class) a horrific sandwich (it’s always horrific). Same rules apply for Frankfurt-London and Frankfurt-Dublin, by the way, and (I’d imagine) for any flight short enough that there is no physical difference between business and economy, just a movable curtain separating the one from the other.

    The only budget airline I know is Berlin Air (and that’s not really budget in the same way as Ryanair). If you want a meal on board you need to buy it. You can pre-order online. They had a pretty broad selection of things that looked like they might actually be nice to eat. As I was flying the, what, 2 hrs? from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt, though, I didn’t bother. Makes more sense to grab something at the airport, if they have anything decent, or else just bring something along.

  10. Cynical Traveler says:

    “PS: The real airline meal I describe is a vanishing thing. Budget airlines in Europe sell you food on board: fair enough, except that the selection is dire. Instant soup if you are lucky.”

    Hi Europe! Welcome to the world of every American airline, circa 15 years ago!

  11. Bloix says:

    ‘Why isn’t this done more?’
    Because a huge cost for airlines is turn-around time at the gate. Anything that puts an object in the hands of passengers – something that will slow them down in stowing bags and getting seated – increases loading time and costs the airline money.