DietBet: How social media can lead to weight loss

Mar 2, 2014

Some people consider social media a waste of time. But what if social media could be used to motivate positive change in people? What if social media could inspire people to make healthier choices, and even lose weight?

This week on Take Care, Dr. Tricia Leahey discusses DietBet, a social networking website that challenges users to lose weight. Leahey is an assistant professor in research at Brown Medical School and the Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, and is also part of the DietBetter.com’s advisory team.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Leahey.

DietBet, which utilizes both a website and a smartphone app, is driven by three main components: social media, competition and financial incentives. People sign up for a game (the most basic is to lose four percent of your body’s weight in four weeks), join a team (of strangers or friends), put money in a pool, and then hope to meet their weight loss goal. The pool is split amongst those on the team who meet their goal, while those who don’t meet their goal lose their entry fee.

While the idea may seem ingenious, does it actually work?

“We are finding that perhaps these financial incentives, by putting your money where your mouth is, plus having these social interactions and this ongoing support and friendly competition, which can actually be quite fun, does yield some pretty impressive weight losses,” says Leahey.

DietBet isn’t the only group-based weight loss program (Weight Watchers is another popular one), but Leahey believes it is one of the most convenient.

“While it [DietBet] continues to create a community, it really fosters social interaction. It’s a big piece of their platform. They encourage people to post things, to ‘like’ things, to cheer each other on. In addition to that, it’s all online. So, in our fast paced life, it’s really nice to be able to log in whenever you want instead of having to go to a prescheduled meeting,” she says.

One concern with all forms of social media is how anonymity is used. People have the potential to hide behind fake names and essentially say whatever they want to whoever they want—whether it’s positive or malicious. Leahey feels that this shouldn’t be too much of a concern when using DietBet.

“This element of anonymity, by joining a web-based program, where everyone has a really similar goal, it might even work for you. Everyone’s trying and helping one another to achieve a weight loss goal, and by not knowing what’s going on in somebody’s life, you’re really focused on weight loss, and there aren’t really any ulterior motives, per se,” she says.

Leahey finds that many users upgrade to more challenging games with higher weight loss goals after trying easier ones, showing just how influential social media can be on a person.

“I think the emerging evidence suggests that perhaps these social media type platforms can impact our health. So I do think that more work needs to be done in this area, and that we need to figure out how best to harness social media to truly impact health. I do think DietBet is really a pioneer in this area, and a leader in social dieting, and provides an excellent platform to help further health behavior change,” she says.