The Midas Diet
August 1, 2013

The Midas Diet

Wish you could turn your extra fat into gold? Dubai is offering its residents the chance to do exactly that. Between July 19 and August 16, the city is paying participants one gram of gold for every kilogram they lose. The three players who lose the most will be entered into a drawing for a gold coin worth $5,400.

Dubai isn’t the only one hopping on the latest diet trend: online competitions, games, and workplace pools all offer players cash prizes to lose weight.

But why, you ask, don’t people just lose weight on their own?

Naturally, we like to think we’re totally in control of our lives. But think about it: does your hand reach for a cookie every day at three o’clock sharp? Does your mouth water every time you see the logo of your favorite coffee shop?

Navigating our food-rich world, rife with cues to consume, we’re like rats in a maze. Stop, sniff, turn, turn – every action is guided by an expectation of reward. For every unhealthy temptation, you can either pick the short path and get immediate pleasure, or take the long road, with the bigger haul at the end. The decision depends on how your brain calculates delayed gratification: the longer you have to wait to get your reward, the less value it gets in the balance.

When it comes to food, obese individuals tend to put more value on immediate rewards, and less value on later payoffs. The same sort of impulsive behavior can be seen in people with a drug or alcohol addiction.

Monetary incentives seem like a pretty good way to tip the scale in favor of healthy choices. Participants who get paid to lose weight will drop more pounds than those going at it on willpower alone. Dieters losing weight as part of a team are even more successful. Games like DietBet also require players to put up their own money to form the winning pot. That means if they don’t make the cut, they lose their ante, giving them an extra incentive to shed the pounds.

Obesity cost Americans $147 billion in medical expenses in 2008, so actually paying citizens to be healthier could reduce health costs for everyone. As an official policy, however, it probably wouldn’t be too popular. A 2011 study found that Americans generally held negative attitudes towards financial incentives for healthy habits. After all, folks who believe weight-loss is a personal responsibility won’t like doling out rewards for behavior that many already do for free. On the flip side, those who are more strongly predisposed to be overweight, either for genetic or environmental reasons, get left in the lurch, since they’d be less likely to win rewards.

Money also has a funny effect on people’s motivation. A classic study found that offering an external reward, like money, tends to reduce intrinsic motivation to do a task. In other words, paying people to lose weight reduces their motivation to be healthy for the sake of being healthy – now they’re just doing it for the cash.

And what happens when the competition is over? Getting healthy habits to stick requires more than a short term cash flow: in lab studies, participants rebounded once the incentives stopped. This doesn’t bode well for Dubai’s weight-loss initiative, which only lasts through Ramadan. It might spur some short-term weight loss, and it should help raise awareness of the problem (in 2008, the obesity rate in United Arab Emirates was higher that of the US, at 33.7 and 31.8 percent respectively). In the long run, though, all that gold probably won’t make much of a dent.

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