The Lottery

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Ralph Francois, of Quincy, won $1,000,000 playing Mega Millions. Marjorie Teixeira, Frank DiMascio, and Christine Cummings, of Melrose, Watertown, and Dedham, respectively, all won lottery prizes on the same December day. Stanley Goryl of Smithfield, Francis McPherson of Somerville, Marque Scott of Fall River, Patricia Cannata of Attleboro, and Linh Dang of Dorchester are just a few of the 15 locals who won at least $1,000,000 through the lottery last month. Their pictures, smiling and holding up enlarged replicas of their winning tickets and prize checks, are both evidence of their victories as well as enticements to the rest of us suggesting that we can be winners too.

Despite these testimonials that fill us with hope, most people do not walk away a winner.  Massachusetts lottery players, on average, will only win back $0.72 for every $1.00 they spend on lottery tickets. According to a study by Bloomberg, state lotteries “have the worst odds of any form of legal gambling” in the country. To put things in perspective, one reportedly is 1,400 times more likely to die in an asteroid apocalypse than he or she is to win Powerball. As if the odds themselves were not concerning enough, playing the lottery can sometimes spiral out of control. A link on the Massachusetts State Lottery’s website directs people to where they can get help for compulsive gambling.

Some people enjoy gambling, including the lottery, and as one of my friends said to me recently, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” Going about it with a sporting attitude for the sake of entertainment and excitement is one thing, but nobody actually believes that playing the lottery will really net a profit, right? Wrong. According to a couple of 2005 surveys put out by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association, 21% of the surveyed Americans believe that winning the lottery represents the most practical way for them to accumulate several hundred thousand dollars. I imagine one would be hard pressed to find a legitimate financial adviser who would suggest that playing the lottery is a sound investment strategy.

Given the time of year with people around me making all sorts of resolutions, the clear parallel between playing the lottery and resolving to lose weight has been on my mind. Joanne and I have written extensively about the chronic failures of weight-centered dietary approaches. Although the exact outcome depends on the specific parameters of the given study in question, research across the board shows that the chances of keeping off lost weight are poor. According to one group of researchers, “Less than 20% of individuals that have attempted to lose weight are able to achieve and maintain a 10% reduction over a year. Over one-third of lost weight tends to return within the first year, and the majority is gained back within three to five years.”

Joanne and I advocate focusing on health rather than weight. In that sense, weight outcomes are only somewhat interesting to us. However, for programs and approaches that revolve around weight, shouldn’t the results at least be better than this?

However, just like people who play the lottery despite the terrible odds of making a profit, we get sucked in by glamorous testimonials, peer pressure, advertisements, and the like, all encouraging us to lose weight. We enter the weight-loss game with the expectation, whether by delusion, misunderstanding, or overconfidence, that we will be the rare exception who comes out on top. “You can’t win if you don’t play,” right?

The difference is that we are not playing a game; we are playing with our health. At best, the weight-loss-weight-regain cycle postpones behavior change that will actually improve our health. More likely, the cycle itself can leave us in a less healthy state, either physiologically, psychologically, or both. Furthermore, just as the lottery can lead to a gambling addiction, weight loss pursuits can lead to serious eating disorders which add a whole new layer of complexity to one’s health problems.

Instead of entering a game that you are likely to lose, leave weight-centered approaches behind and focus on making healthier choices. No, lifestyle change is neither sexy nor rapid. Lifestyle change does not make for good reality television. What it can do though is increase your chances of getting healthy and staying that way.