-- When you’re a size 14, the thought of putting on a bridesmaid’s dress can seem daunting, but Christina Maher was up for the challenge.
By the day of her cousin’s wedding, Maher, a 26-year-old who lives in New York City, literally bet she could be down four dress sizes – 40 pounds in six months -- and if she made it, she could win money.
Maher sent $385 each month to HealthyWage, a company that allows users to place bets on its website and phone app that they meet weight loss goals in exchange for cash prizes.
If she achieved her goal, Maher would win $5,000, plus get all her money back, for a grand total of $7,310. But if she didn’t lose the weight, she would be out thousands of dollars.
“I’m re-motivated and ready to go,” Maher said. “I think I really need to get my ass into gear so I can win this bet because I cannot afford not to.”
HealthyWage says it has already paid out more than $2 million in prize money, yet only one third of participants actually win their bets.
“In our view there’s always a win somewhere,” said Jimmy Fleming, the co-founder of HealthyWage. “I mean the number of people who make a bet and then just fall off the radar are very few. Almost everyone loses some weight. The question is, are you going to accomplish your goal?”
According to some studies, people using money as a motivator are five times more likely to reach their goal weight than if the dieters didn’t have money at stake.
Dave Zinczenko, ABC News’ nutrition and wellness editor and the author of “Eat This, Not That,” and “Eat It to Beat It,” is an expert in diets. He said using money as an incentive to lose weight is becoming more popular but dieters have to be careful.
"One of the big problems with the diet apps is they don’t necessarily teach you how to eat healthfully or exercise efficiently when you don’t have time, space or money," Zinczenko said. "So, you’re not figuring out how to lose weight over the long haul, and the issue is not what you weigh four weeks from now, it’s what you weigh four months from now, or more importantly, four years from now."
At her heaviest, Maher was 295 pounds and her goal was to weigh 194 pounds by the day of her cousin’s wedding.
For Maher, weight has been a lifelong struggle.
“I remember being 6 years old and thinking that I was overweight,” she said. “I got on a scale thinking I was fat, and I’ve never really gotten out of that.”
She said she has never gone off a diet for more than a month.
“[I’ve tried] everything that you can imagine,” Maher said. “It’s funny because I almost feel like I’m such an expert on losing weight… it’s just the actual follow-through that I’ve struggled with over the years.”
As part of her bet against herself through HealthyWage, Maher tracked her weight online by recording every calorie she consumed, and tracked her steps with a FitBit bracelet.
HealthyWage has users take photos of the number on the scale with something that can prove the date, such a copy of today’s newspaper, for regular weigh-ins.
“We’re pretty good at detecting cheaters and making sure that everybody’s actually losing weight and not trying to cheat and get money,” Fleming said. “We have a lot of little tools and strategies to help us make sure that no one is getting away with cheating.”
Although HealthyWage doesn’t advise users on what to eat, they do offer guidance and support to get through the weight-loss process.
“We can’t stop them from doing unhealthy things any more than any other diet program can,” Fleming said. “But our content and all of our motivational tips and emails all revolve around making good healthy decisions and losing weight in a consistent long-term way.”
Two months into her HealthyWage bet, Maher dropped eight pounds, but fell off the wagon a few times.
“I’d have cookie and then I’d have another cookie, and then I would go out to the grocery store and pick up a whole package or cookies, or a pint of ice cream. And I would eat the entire pint of ice cream or package of cookies,” she said. “Sometimes it would be potato chips that were my downfall—my vice.”
But with just a month to go before her cousin’s wedding, Maher kicked the diet into high gear and was eating only 1,600 calories a day.
“I literally weigh to the gram of pretty much everything,” she said. “So as I’ve been doing this diet, I found now that a little bit less carbs and a little bit more protein is what really helps take the pounds off.”
Five and a half months in, Maher was riding high, having lost 34 pounds. She said she further restricted her calorie intake, then cut back on her workouts.
“I’ve been going a little low carb and a little bit more lower calorie, so, now I’m eating closer to 12-1,300 [calories],” she said. <[>In her final week, Maher weighed in at 193 pounds, winning the bet she placed on herself with one pound to spare. HealthyWage handed her a check with her winnings in person.
“I had just seen that '1' in front of my scale for the first time a couple weeks prior and it never gets old,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. … It was very relieving.”
Three weeks after reaching her hard-earned goal, Maher gained back 16 pounds -- more than one third of her total weight loss. But despite the weight gain, Maher said she isn’t worried.
“I’m not trying to make excuses for myself but it was six months of very strict diet of exercise and everything so I went a little bit crazy for the last couple of weeks. I don’t think it’s so bad,” she said. “It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be back in no time. Sure of it.”