Lose It iconPeople 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.

I learned this through a survey 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! The app is one of the most consistently-used mobile health tools available in app stores.

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.”

Our 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.” Our 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 we found was consistent with our hypothesis. Our 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 financially 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 tend 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 home debt than people who are financially uncomfortable.

In contrast, more people who said they were financially uncomfortable had education debt, living expense debt, credit card debt, kept credit card balances, and – strikingly — were 2.5 times more likely to have medical bill debt (24.7% versus 10.4% of financially comfortable consumers).

The over-arching finding is that the financially-comfortable tend to have the highest belief in their financial efficacy – their ability to reach personal financial health goals. Those people less comfortable with their finances index much lower on their financial efficacy – their personal ability to manage financial health in the future.

Interestingly, slightly more people who are financially uncomfortable use a mobile finance app than those who are more fiscally comfortable.

The Lose It! team and I have discussed in detail these and additional survey findings. One important observation is that, while the differences noted between the money-comfortable versus the uncomfortable are statistically significant, many are not huge differences. Our team of people involved in this research has collectively been involved with mobile health apps and digital health for many years, and have learned from our respective research and experience that mobile technology can be powerful in the hands of consumers. Tracking food and/or money is empowering and can bolster self-efficacy – for losing weight and gaining wellness, preventing diabetes from evolving from pre-diabetes; and, for saving money for a personal investment goal, such as obtaining approval for a home mortgage or car loan.

In both cohorts, financially comfortable and not-so-comfortable, the weight and financial efficacy differences are within one point on the five-point index used in the survey. This bolsters our collective observation that people who track aspects of daily living (whether food, money, or both) recognize that “it’s my problem” and “when I have tools to do it myself I do better.” Peer-reviewed research has shown that DIY tracking of calories via food journaling, whether digital or on paper, supports weight loss.

Of course, it takes a village and DIY only goes so far. There are many parts to the consumer’s health ecosystem, and the more health that’s “baked in” to the many touchpoints, the more people can be successful in managing nutrition and finances.

Consumers are becoming more health-mindful when shopping for food, thanks to greater transparency in labeling and digital tools that help people compare in the retail-moment. Eight in ten people walk into a grocery store and have “health” on their minds when shopping for food. It’s useful to note that among all industry sectors, supermarkets earned the highest customer experience rankings in the 2016 Temkin Experience Ratings consumer survey published this month, led by Publix, H-E-B, Kroger, Wegmans and Aldi. In fact, supermarkets garner high marks when it comes to consumer trust and honesty across all industries – tied with hospitals – in The Harris poll. Furthering their health mission, supermarkets are hiring dieticians to help consumers build healthy grocery baskets.

Health plans are also linking with consumers to bolster healthy eating through financial incentives, such as Harvard Pilgrim, United Healthcare, and the Blue Shield Healthy Life Rewards program which launched this month 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.

Loyalty programs such as this were raised in a recent article published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association – a publication that’s peer-reviewed by doctors. So the topic of behavioral economics in health is getting traction even among physicians, a slow-to-change profession.

Perhaps that’s because even doctors must now face the growing cost-conscious financial regime in health care known as value-based payment. The shorthand for this changing reimbursement paradigm is moving “from volume to value.” That means doctors will be increasingly rewarded on the basis of their patients’ outcomes, not on how much they “do” to and with the patient in terms of visits, immunizations, and prescription encounters.

We come full circle, then, beginning with individuals tracking food and connecting dots to personal financial fitness. But the consumer can only DIY so much in their personal health ecosystem. It takes a village when it comes to helping strengthen consumers’ self-efficacy for both food and finance in wellness. People will be best-served when other touchpoints for health converge in that fragmented ecosystem – the food industry at retail, health insurance, physicians, and financial services, among them.

As these connections are made, you can expect the central role of food to become increasingly important to the physical and financial wellness of people.

Note that 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.