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Carrot and Stick: New Apps Help You Bet Against Yourself to Lose Weight

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Dieting apps are almost as old as app stores themselves, though at first these programs were little more than simple expansions on the tried-and-true food diary. The most popular meal-logging apps, like Calorie Counter and Lose It, now tap into vast online databases of foods and their nutritional content. This helps with the daily data entry, but ultimately leaves almost all of the motivational burden on your shoulders (and waist and butt and thighs).

More recently, though, a wave of new apps is seeking to apply sophisticated psychological principles to help users shed pounds. One peer-reviewed study from 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that dieters who were rewarded with financial incentives — or punished along similar lines — lost three times as much weight as those who weren’t, and were five times more likely to meet weight loss goals. And the Mayo Clinic found in 2013 that 62 percent of dieters in a financially incentivized group lost weight, while only 26 percent of those in a control group did. Seizing upon such research, developers have cooked up a variety of apps that employ a range of carrots and sticks to raise the stakes for dieters.

HealthyWage (iOS and Android, free) was directly inspired by the 2008 JAMA study. The concept behind the app is simple: Place a bet (called a HealthyWager) on how much weight you intend to lose by when, and the app will calculate a cash reward you’ll receive if you make it. The company calculates the prize amount based on variables that include everything from your current body mass index to the time of year the bet is placed, with more challenging goals commanding higher rewards. In addition to the individual bets, employers can use HealthyWage to devise group challenges for their workers, who compete as teams to lose the greatest percentage of weight.

HealthyWage says that people are “surprisingly honest about their bets,” though it also requires participants to verify their weight loss before cashing in their winnings. (You can either use the app to take videos of your weigh-ins, which are then reviewed by HealthyWage referees, or have your weight corroborated by a medical professional.) To discourage yo-yo dieting, once you’ve lost weight via a HealthyWager, you have to get back to that weight before placing another bet. Of course, the healthiest wager would be one that bet on long-term weight maintenance, but the company says it’s found that maintaining weight loss “just isn’t very exciting” — although it is working on some new approaches.

Created by three Yale professors, StickK (iOS and Android, prerelease, free) follows a similar model of financial incentive, allowing members to make legally binding “commitment contracts” with themselves for a multitude of habits to adopt or end, or goals to meet. StickK’s contracts, however, can be far more devious than HealthyWage’s: For those who fail to meet their goals, StickK donates a predetermined amount of money to the charity of their choice. For an extra bit of motivation, you can choose to give to a cause you oppose — for example, gun control advocates could choose to have their escrow funds sent to the NRA or lifelong Democrats could help support the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

For those seeking a side dish of personality with their weight loss incentivizing, consider the wisecracking, slightly sadistic digital provocateur Carrot, created by Grailr. Founded by a former screenwriter, the iPhone developer boasts apps including Carrot Hunger (iOS only, free, offers streamlined services with in-app purchase), which tracks food intake via barcode scan, a food database, and manual entry.

Carrot Hunger punishes its users, whom it gleefully refers to as “chubby humans,” by way of monetary loss (demanding a 99-cent bribe not to count an item’s calories), onscreen eyesores (full-screen pop-up ads, some of which are ruses), and peer pressure (publishing embarrassing tweets such as “I enjoy eating so much, my calorie counter now has to publicly shame me for going over my goal”). The snark extends to asking users if they’d like reminders to log food entries: “Compared to omniscient supercomputers, meatbags have terrible memories.”

To help meet daily caloric goals, Carrot Hunger provides the companion app Carrot Fit (iOS only, $3.99), which offers rapid-fire exercises it calls “seven minutes in hell.” These consist of standard exercises like squats and push-ups; abandoning them mid-workout means pressing a “Yes, I suck” button. While there’s no direct integration between the two apps, both take advantage of Apple products beyond the iPhone: Carrot Fit can prompt exercises through the Apple Watch, and Carrot Hunger can use an iBeacon location sensor such as those from Estimote to remind you to log food when you’re near the fridge.

While incentives can create motivation for weight loss, their impact will inevitably vary from person to person. (Indeed, HealthyWage partly subsidizes rewards for those who win bets with payments from those who fail.) And if you don’t feel the need for algorithm-derived weight loss payouts, even lowly paper diaries have been proven to increase your chance of success. Digital brains can help make your diet healthier than ever, but it’s still ultimately the brains of “gluttonous humans,” as Carrot defines us, that determine whether we “indiscriminately stuff our chubby faces” or take a healthier path.