Have trouble counting calories? Try counting dollars instead. A new study conducted by Carnegie Mellon Professor George Loewenstein, and Kevin Volpp of the University of Pennsylvania, found that dieters lost more weight when cash incentives were part of the plan.
The behavioral economics study, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, placed adult dieters into three groups. One group entered a daily lottery and received winnings only if they reached their targeted weight levels. A second group invested their own money, but lost it if they didn't meet their goals. The third group was given no monetary incentive at all.
The goal: lose a pound a week over 16 weeks.
The results were striking. The mean weight loss for both incentive groups was more than 13 pounds — with about half the participants reaching the 16-pound goal. But the mean weight loss for the control group was only 4 pounds.
In addition to losing weight, there was also some money earned. The lottery group averaged $272 in earnings and the group that invested their own money averaged $378.
While both incentive groups gained some of their weight back over the next seven months, they did not return to their original weights.
Obesity in this country has reached alarming proportions and falls just behind smoking as a preventable cause of death. The researchers believe that a contributing factor is the increased emphasis people place on immediate gratification, like the enjoyment of eating, rather than on more delayed benefits, such as improved health.
"The key to successful weight loss, whether you use money rewards or not, is to weigh yourself every day and to have daily weight targets that decrease each day by a tiny amount," said Loewenstein. "If you have a larger weekly target, you'll wait to the end of the week to start dieting seriously, and it's awfully difficult to lose a lot of weight in a single day."