Why the Atkins approach is bad for business

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Doing an Atkins diet is now as fashionable in business as it is in personal life. But in business – as on the female body – there are places where you want fat as well as those where you do not. Bottom line – rather than tinker with sustainability, it is still best to soak up resources and use the energy productively.

Was the late Dr Atkins really morbidly obese? Or was he merely slightly overweight when he fell over in the street and died? Whatever the answer, the doctor’s career is a more powerful tribute to the power of modern marketing than to the capacity of his nostrums to prolong life.

The Atkins diet restricts carbohydrate intake. It works, up to a point, because we use carbohydrates as a source of energy and when deprived of them we dip into reserves of fat. The process of burning fat produces ketones, which some claim have an appetite-suppressing effect. But if we go for long without proper nutrition, we die, just as an aircraft that is running on its emergency fuel supplies ultimately falls out of the sky.

Eventually, you need to start refuelling. At that point, you discover that the only way to achieve a healthy lifestyle is to rethink your eating habits and adopt a balanced diet incorporating moderate quantities of varied foods. You always knew that, of course, but like me and millions of other people you hoped that if you bought a diet book the weight would magically slip away.

The model of fuel supplies supplemented by replenishable reserves is common not just in biological systems but also in economic and social ones. We keep capital in our businesses for the same reason we collect fat around our bottoms: to keep us going when there is an interruption in the supply of cash (in one case) or carbohydrates (in the other). We build up goodwill with customers and employees in the hope that we can rely on their loyalty in hard times.

As these analogies show, we are not fat because nature wants us to be ugly. Fat has a biological purpose: for most of history it was a sign of vitality and rich men were proud of their rotund wives – look at the ideal of human beauty in a Rubens painting. On the savannahs, where our genetic inheritance was determined, food supplies were sometimes scarce. That is why we are programmed to eat what is put in front of us – even airline meals. But in the 21st century we can remedy nutritional deficiency immediately with a call to a pizza delivery service. With pizza cheap and health clubs expensive, it is now more costly to be thin than to be fat. But our metabolisms have not yet adjusted to this modern environment.

The business environment has experienced similar changes. Globalisation has made markets more responsive and flexible. Our companies, like our bodies, have less need of self-sufficiency. Just-in-time management is the commercial equivalent of dialling for a pizza. Healthy businesses used to display their fat with the same exuberance as banks would impress their depositors with marble. Woolworths and Chrysler, Unilever and ICI built head offices that were testimonies to their wealth and permanence. But the corporations of today are abandoning these edifices. Cutting out the fat, becoming lean and mean, are now commercial goals.

So doing an Atkins is now as fashionable in business as it is in personal life. But in business – as on the female body – there are places where you want fat as well as those where you do not. It is one thing to slim down an overstaffed activity, another to burn the loyalty of your employees. Ketosis reduces fat indiscriminately, and so do many cost reduction programmes.

But the larger issue is sustainability. Atkins is effective at short-term weight loss, as slash-and-burn managers are effective at short-term earnings growth. And business consultants and market analysts fulfil the role of ketones – they let you feel good about your diet, and convince you that you can continue indefinitely. But you cannot.

Both weight loss and earnings growth are limited by the available fat. Its depletion leaves your body craving food and your customers craving nourishment.

Burning fat is the right emergency treatment for the morbidly obese – in life or in business. But good nutrition demands a balanced diet, and good business a balanced approach. The healthiest bodies – those of athletes and soldiers – soak up carbohydrates and use the energy they yield productively. It is to their lifestyle, not that of Dr Atkins, that we should look for business analogies.

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