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Sticking to the plan

Today marks 3 weeks since Mike and I “went off the deep end” – out of the blue, we decided to try “the keto diet.” In some ways, it’s just one among many fad diets, like paleo or 5:2. But, it also provides enough science (well, probably pseudo-science) to make sense to the skeptics like us. Neither of us has ever been on a strict diet before, as we truly are food-obsessed bon vivants.   Yet somehow, for some crazy reason, keto got us to stick to the plan.  Maybe it’s the meticulous record-keeping or the competition with oneself to stay within the allotted 20 grams of net carbs a day? These are certainly both features that appeal to our Type A personalities and therefore got us through the first oh-so-miserable few days.  But I think that in the longer run it was something else.  For me, it has to do with loss aversion – the very human trait that describes an individual’s desire to avoid losing.  Loss aversion is associated with a related behavioral phenomenon known as the sunk cost bias.  In my case, every time I decide what I will eat next, I think about the 3 weeks of accumulated “good behavior” of sticking to the diet. It makes me feel like that time would be wasted, were I to succumb to temptation. (Oh, how I miss you, strawberries!)  

This experience reminds me of a very well-written blog post by my two excellent students from Fall 2016: Monica Reno and Silpa Karipineni.  It gives a really interesting perspective on how to use incentives to stick to the plan.

Last semester, I downloaded an application called Pact on my phone. The app was designed to help people set and meet health goals in fitness and nutrition. Each week you set a goal for a certain number of days to complete a given action, and at the end you are paid if you reach your goal. You also set a penalty of at least $5 per day for each day that you did not successfully complete a task. For example, one of the pacts you can make is going to the gym say 5 times a week. The days are not set, but if you reach Sunday and only went to the gym 4 times you would lose 5 real dollars as the app is connected to your bank account or PayPal. If you do successfully complete your Pacts, the company actually pays you money, albeit less. On average, I made $3.00 each week for working out, eating fruits and vegetables, and logging food journals.
To verify fitness completion, the app would track GPS location for checking into gyms (although it also completes the task if you walk more 10,000 steps a day as indicated by your phone or 3rd party application). For fruits and vegetables, you have to take pictures of them on your plate or on a fork, and then other Pact community members voted on whether they believed the picture showed a real fruit or vegetable as an appropriate serving. This provides another level of accounting because you are now also being held verified by other people across the world.
Furthermore, the money you get each week is variable and depends on the success of others. If I defaulted on my Pact by missing a day, I lost $5, but more than that I knew those $5 were going towards paying people who had completed their Pacts. I wanted to be the person getting money from the community and not losing my money to help other people I did not know. I successfully completed my pact every week that I used the app (which was about 6 months) until I started to procrastinate my workouts. If I had 5 workouts to log throughout the week I would wait until Wednesday where I then had to do each successive workout otherwise I would definitely lose money. However, once that happened and I lost $5, I decided I did not have time and discontinued using the app.
            Overall, I was highly incentivized to complete my goals, and at the start of the week when I had to lock in my goal, I always had high expectations. The fear of losing real money, especially as a college student, was more powerful than the urge to sleep in a little longer and not workout in the morning, so I would make sure to meet the goal. Ultimately, the app is pretty successful at using monetary incentives and public posting to help incentivize healthy behaviors.


Just as an aside: Ultimately, I don’t recommend the keto diet.  It is exceptionally strict (I mean, NO STRAWBERRIES???).  It doesn’t work for everyone, because the calorie deficiency one requires to lose weight is, in my opinion, too extreme.  And it certainly should not be pursued for more than a month due to health risks that I believe can be real (consult your physician!!!). But, it was an interesting exercise in self-control that taught me, more than anything, that I can stick to the plan.

Romaine lettuce with bacon, blue cheese crumbles, and blue cheese dressing.  Tomatoes and onions are a bit of a cheat...


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