Dieting for dollars: Financial incentive helps people lose weight, study shows

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By Lisa Flam

There’s new evidence that dieting for dollars really can help you slim down.

A study from the Mayo Clinic found that dieters offered a financial incentive were more likely to lose weight, TODAY reported Wednesday.

“This could be one piece of the puzzle to help people achieve their healthy weight goals,” Dr. Donald Hensrud, editor of The Mayo Clinic Diet, told TODAY.

In the study, 100 Mayo Clinic employees and their relatives who were obese were asked to lose four pounds a month for a year. Some participants received $20 a month if they reached their goal, others were penalized $20 a month if they failed, and those in a third group had no financial motivation either way.

Sixty-two percent of those offered a cash bonus lost weight, but without the cash benefit, just 26 percent reached their goal.

TODAY contributor Dr. Roshini Raj was impressed with the results.

“In those previous studies, unfortunately the weight loss was usually was not sustained after the incentive was taken away,” she said. “This was the first study where it was year long and they really every month gave the financial incentive, and there were also penalties."

“As much as we love to get money, we also hate to lose money, and it really did seem to work and motivate people,” Raj said.

The study comes as an estimated two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and are spending billions on weight-loss programs. Some plans involve dieters betting that they can drop the weight.

Three people who participated in weight-loss wager programs, though not through the Mayo Clinic, discussed their success.

Jon Whicker bet $160 through several programs on the website HealthyWage, and lost 125 pounds.

“HealthyWage, I think, has really learned that trick of, put that money in, got some skin in the game, you’ve got your carrot at the end or the risk of losing your money,” Whicker said. “And no one wants to lose money.”

Another successful wagerer, Mindy Workman, lost 57 pounds and won $1,200, which she said, “bought a lot of clothes.”

“I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life,” she said. “It got down to medical conditions. I think the money definitely helped because you put your own money up and you don’t want to lose that.”

Raj agreed that cash can make the difference.

“As human beings, our brains really respond to rewards,” she said. “Unfortunately, you would think being healthier, having a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer is the reward itself, but that’s a long term thing. Money, you feel it in your pocket and you like it.”

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