People who carry more debt for credit cards, cars, education, and health care have less optimistic outlooks on their ability to control their weight, based on a survey of the Lose It! community of food trackers.
The survey was conducted in February 2016 among 4,118 people using the Lose It! mobile app, which enables people to track their daily nutrition. Some 25 million people have downloaded Lose It!, which is one of the most consistently-used mobile health tools available in app stores. Note that the app helps users calculate a “daily calorie budget.”
The bottom-line is that people who more consistently track their calories and food intake are more likely to be fiscally fit than people who do not, suggesting a link between healthy eating and financially wellness.
The study’s working hypothesis, succinctly put by Elyse Winer, Vice President of Marketing at Lose It!, was that, “If you ignore your body or your balance sheet, things can get out of control.” A working metaphor for financial wellness is that whether you are referring to your physical body or your fiscal affairs, the more you know about “what you’re putting in” or depositing, the more fit you will be – physically and fiscally.
What was found was consistent with the study’s hypothesis. The sample of several thousand men and women, together, fell into two cohorts: people who self-identified as “financially comfortable” and those who said they were “financially uncomfortable.” These two segments were defined as those who “were saving a lot” or “saving a little” for the financially comfortable; and, for the finically uncomfortable, people who were “just managing to make ends meet,” “having to draw on savings,” or “running into debt.”
More Lose It! community members who self-identified as financially comfortable tended to track food more frequently, binge-ate less, were more optimistic about their weight outlook, and believed they are able to reach weight-related health goals. These people also indexed at a higher income level and had less debt – except for home debt, where more folks who are financially comfortable are more likely to carry a mortgage.
The discomfort of debt…especially medical debt. In contrast, more people who said they were financially uncomfortable had greater:
- Education debt (48% of the financially uncomfortable vs. 34% of the comfortable)
- Living expense debt (twice as many financially uncomfortable people, 36% vs. 18%)
- Credit card debt (50% more of the financially uncomfortable, 61% vs. 40%); and,
- Medical bill debt (25% vs. 10%).
That works out to the financially uncomfortable group being 2.5 times more likely to have medical bill debt.
Here’s the health economic backstory to that finding. In 2016, the average American family allocates $1 in every $5 to household medical expenses – and that statistic doesn’t include goods and services people buy out-of-pocket (post tax-dollars) on health care that isn’t part of the traditional medical system. THINK: gym memberships, vitamins and supplements, chiropractic, homeopathic, nutraceuticals, skincare, and other consumer-facing medical goods that health insurance doesn’t (yet) pay for. Those non-“healthcare” health goods and services tally $3.5 bn in the U.S. economy, but aren’t part of medical claims. For context, this direct consumer-spending in addition to National Health Expenditures of $3.2 bn in 2015.
At the same time, more enrollees into health insurance plans in America are being nudged through incentives into high-deductible health plans. 46% of Americans have deductibles exceeding $1,000. In Silver Plans purchased on Health Insurance Exchanges in 2014, the average deductible was $2,907 per person.
That’s the medical cost side of the American consumer’s life. Now consider that nearly two-thirds of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.
Now, consider food in that household budget equation.
Eating right can be good for your finances. It costs about $1.50 more a day per person in the U.S. to eat healthy, according to a recent study by a team at the Harvard School of Public Health. That $1.50 per day might sound exorbitant to a person with low income. But from a whole health and life cycle perspective, that daily cost is small compared to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets, according to the researchers. That calls for public policy to balance the short-term costs for healthier food to avert greater downstream health care costs attributable to the burden of chronic disease – in particular, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and together, “diabesity.”
Money magazine recently published evidence-based advice from NerdWallet about how a healthy diet can also improve one’s finances. The tips included:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables and lower the likelihood of needing to take a sick day.
- Stay more productive at work through eating healthy, based on 2012 research conducted at Brigham Young University which found that consistently eating well each day may lower risk of productivity loss by 66%.
- Eating well can help people get off of medications: three of the top five most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. are for preventable heart conditions, equal to at least 160 million Rx’s each year.
- A healthy diet can help a person avoid expensive medical complications.
As a result, health plans are providing incentives to enrollees for purchasing healthy food, such as Harvard Pilgrim which rewards up to $20 a month, and Humana which gives members a 10% discount on healthy groceries purchased at Walmart through the Vitality Health program.
In northeastern New York State. The Blues’ HealthyLife Rewards is enabled by NutriSavings, a digital platform that mashes up nutrition and health education with financial incentives to motivate consumers to make healthier food-shopping choices. The financial “nudge” is significant, with as much as $500 in annual cash rewards available for buying healthy food at major supermarkets in the region.
And then there’s aging better. “When most people think of retirement planning, they think of 401(k)s and IRAs,” Money magazine wrote. “That’s a great start, but if there’s anything that can deplete your retirement funds, it’s unplanned medical costs. Studies conducted over the past 20 years show that plant-based and Mediterranean diets increase longevity and health.”
Healthy food impacts wealth. The Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences has explored the financial impact of improved health behaviors, asserting that, “health is as much of an ‘investment’ as stock or bonds…Both health and wealth require proactive action and are jeopardized by simply doing nothing.”
It’s important to recognize that by digitally journaling and quantifying their food intake, the Lose It! community members, both those who consider themselves financially comfortable and those not-so-much, all have a handle on their weight issues. Their mindfulness and consciousness about what they’re eating each day is giving them some control over their future: while the less-financially comfortable members say their past weight loss wasn’t what they had hoped it would be, they have a much brighter outlook for the future, with a weight-optimism index roughly equal to people who feel financially comfortable. The same goes for their future outlook on financial changes, with greater optimism about their ability to achieve financial goals. Note that equal proportions in both groups, about 3 in 4 people, use a mobile finance app to manage their money on-the-go.
By tracking both food and money, these consumers are connecting the dots between food and money. This is hardly a new concept: Virgil, that ancient Roman poet, wrote, “The greatest wealth is health.”
Note: I worked collegially with Lose It! on this survey; no compensation has changed hands. Lose It! conducted this survey among its community per my request, as they were as curious about the research question about food and finance as I have been as a health economist. To learn more about Lose It!, visit www.loseit.com.