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Fighting obesity with information

June 08 3 Comments Category: Posts

Introducing the RunKeeper Health Graph

Recently I discovered a great food blog: Silver and Claret. Today I woke up to a post titled “Waste and Obesity: Britain’s Food Crisis“. There’s just so many things wrong with our approach to food these days I don’t even know where to begin. The way it is produced, the way it is marketed, the way we consume it and even the way we then get rid of the waste and packaging. There is something wrong with every step in the cycle it seems.

This is not just true in Britain, it is prevalent all over the world in “developed” countries. In fact, the problems seem to come with becoming a “developed” country. No, I don’t like that term.

What I do like is that Chris Dreyfus who wrote the post at Silver and Claret (and that blog seems packed with great articles) ends his post with a few suggestions on how things can be changed. We can’t expect corporations to ever do anything that cuts into their bottom line, so it starts with consumers:

  • Go back to basics - knowledge about food and how to cook is essential for a healthy lifestyle.
  • Ditch the supermarkets – buy your food from local suppliers.
  • Plan your food – make sure to use all that you buy and stop wasting food.

All really good points. Personally, I think that with greater knowledge and understanding of food comes a greater appreciation of the ingredients that go in it which automatically leads to looking away from the mega-supermarkets towards local butchers, bakers and vegetable markets. Oh, how jealous I am of the French in this respect, and how annoyed that my local green grocer recently shut up shop.

I’d like to offer a fourth suggestion, specifically focused on personal health and well being: information.

Since I first discovered and devoured  Gary Taubes’ excellent book Good Calories, Bad Calories I’ve been reading quite a lot about food and weight . The facts behind decades of nutritional misinformation sucked me in like the worst kind of conspiracy theory. If a book has ever proven that science can be riveting, that book is it.

In my reading, for all the fad diets, eating guidelines and weight loss suggestions I have come across, there is one recommendation that pops up over and over again, and it is to keep track of what you eat. Keeping a food diary. It seems that the simple idea of constantly recording what you put on your plate not only keeps you informed, it also motivates you to keep going.

There are comparative studies showing that a person who keeps a food diary is likely to lose much more weight than a person who don’t.

In fact, you might not even have to note down every ingredient and do the calorie counting thing. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Body (yes, he is a bit over the top and his ideas sound crazy at first, but he is fascinating) even suggests that simply snapping a photo of your every meal is all that is needed. Keeping the awareness of what you eat at the top of your mind. Better yet, post the photos online, for the world to see (some people take this to extremes…). Make  a commitment to weight loss in public, and document your struggle with weight online to apply some healthy peer pressure (real or perceived, doesn’t matter) to stay on track.

He also proposes four factors that are key to achieve success. To failure-proof whatever endeavour you take on:

  1. Make it conscious
  2. Make it a game
  3. Make it competitive
  4. Make it small and temporary

I’d like to rephrase “make it small and temporary” as “make it challenging but achievable”. For a great presentation with Tim Ferriss, where he outlines some of the content of the book and among other things talk about this, check this video.

Without a doubt, information is key to stay motivated, stay on track, and get real results. If I am ever to give any advice on losing weight, that’s it. Track. That, and cut out sugary drinks entirely (massive “hidden” source of calories) and cut down on alcohol (stick to red wine, no beer, argh!).

So what can technology do to help? Lots.

We have never been better suited to document the world. With the rise of the smartphones, there is a high performance CPU, a camera and an internet connection in almost every pocket. App developers quickly did the math, and really managed to make  1 + 1 = 5.

Consider the app “Mealsnap“. It does exactly what the name says: snaps photos of your food. But it then takes it that extra step, and provides you with a fairly accurate ingredient breakdown and calorie count. Magic? No, not at all. Daily Burn, the makers of the app, are not wizards. In fact, behind the scenes they employ a cadre of people through the Amazon Mechanical Turk program to look at each photo you take and provide the information required. Result: the quickest, and most effort less food diary you’ll ever find.

Consider the gadget “Fitbit“. While Mealsnap counts calories in, Fitbit counts your expenditure. Now, I happen to believe that the “calories in, calories out” proponents are over simplifying the intricate workings of the human body, but if you are a spreadsheet geek this is the device for you to complete the energy data about your life. It also tracks your sleep, and getting a good night’s sleep is another one of those super-recommendations for well being.

Consider “Withings“. This is a French company who create “smart and connected objects”. Excited yet? I sure am. One of their products is a scale, which will hook up to your iPhone and track your body weight so you can follow your progress over time. But wait, there’s more. It can also (gasp!) automatically publish your measurements to Facebook, your blog or Twitter! Now, we all know that over sharing is becoming a problem, but if you want to go public with your commitment, this is it. They also sell a blood pressure cuff which works in a similar way.

There’s a lot of gadgets and apps out there to help with health related activities and record keeping, but they are all spread out. Sprinkles of data here, a graph there, some tweets over here. Doesn’t really provide a very holistic view of how your body is changing.

This is where it gets really exciting.

Enter “RunKeeper“. What started out as a very simple app leveraging the iPhone GPS to track your running has over the past year grown to become a hub for all kinds of health data. Through their app and website you can connect with your friends, access training programs to help with your goals (want to run a half marathon? there’s a schedule for that), and challenge others to races. Goal setting, information, sharing, competition: all the components to push you to keep going.

Not content with that, the makers of RunKeeper has also integrated their service with Fitbit and Withings mentioned above. Pulling in your training data, your calorie expenditure and sleep data, and your weight changes. All automated, all connected.

They are now taking it to the n:th level, releasing the Health Graph API. An API, for those less tech enamoured, is a way for developers to connect to services and data. Let’s say you have created an Android app to track sleeping patterns, using the accelerometer in the phone to detect when you stir in bed. You can now connect the data you collect with all the other data available in the RunKeeper service and correlate it to whatever exercise you have been doing the day before. Massively hard exercise, heavy sleep? Or, bad sleep the night before, no stamina at the gym?

Healt correlations

Look at the graph above. That kind of visual confirmation of the result of months of hard work is to me a great motivator.

Tracking devices for health and fitness have been around for a long time, but never before has it been so easy and cheap to start collecting data about yourself and analyse it to learn more about how your body works.

“Cheap?!?”, I hear you say, “An iPhone is not cheap! And what about all the other gadgets?!” Well. I am one of those guys who bought a Garmin Forerunner 405, with built in GPS, when it came out a couple of years ago to track my running. Amazing piece of kit. Made my inner geek cream in his grubby pants. For the joy of a difficult to use, unreliable device with really poor software (didn’t even come with a website at first) I forked out over £300, with the heart rate monitor. One year later RunKeeper came out. Since I already had my iPhone, the RunKeeper app cost me £2.99. It worked better, with greater accuracy, allowed me to enter notes about the run from my phone, did not require me to go back and read the manual to remind me of obscure button pushes, and came with an amazing website hooked up to social networks and friends. Didn’t track my heart rate, but at that cost I decided I could live without.

For less than I paid for my Garmin, which I ended up giving away to a much more dedicated runner than me, I can buy all of the devices and apps mentioned above. So provided you already have the phone (which many already do) yes, cheap and easy, comparatively.

Besides, the point is that tracking leads to awareness, leads to motivation, leads to greater chance of success. Anyone can pick up a pen and paper and start keeping a food diary. It is less sexy though. ;)

I am going to keep a very close eye on the RunKeeper Health Graph API, and predict a few gadget related purchases in the Hultberg household coming up…

Are you using any of these apps and gadgets? What do you think? Have they helped you, or do you just feel you drown in data you never look at…? Leave your thoughts below. :)

  • Monica Shaw

    I used to use an excel spreadsheet to track my diet – this was several years ago before apps and such made it easy. I don’t do it anymore, but the process taught me good habits that I’ve managed to keep up. And if ever I’m feeling my diet slide, I spend a week just writing down my foods with pen and pencil. I’ve tried things like Calorie Count’s diet tracker (which is quite good), but it’s just too anal retentive for me and makes me enjoy food less.  As for exercise, I keep it simple – I have a small gridded moleskin notebook. No fancy analytics, but for me that’s not what it’s about. The simple act of writing it down motivates me to push myself harder the next workout. 

  • topturnip

    I don’t know…I think the tracking in itself can also become an obsession, and hinder weight loss and a healthy relationship with food. Obviously my views are tainted by my own experiences here, but I don’t think tracking is the silver bullet for weight loss. Yes, if the reason you are overweight is that you absentmindedly stuff your face without thinking, then tracking will certainly be an eye opener. But if the reason you’re overweight is a) being given the wrong advice about what to eat to lose weight (i.e. low fat, high carb) or b) overeating due to emotional issues (often high carb anyways) then tracking can make you so obsessed with your next meal, whether you did “good” or “bad” etc that food loses it’s original point of being fuel and pleasure completely. I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened to me, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this.

    But I totally agree that anything that can help the dreary task of losing weight and getting in shape more of a game is probably a great idea for lots of people. And with the fitness aspect I am an avid user of different tracking tools myself, as it seems to be more of a “positive obsession”, focusing more on what I achieved rather than what my slip-ups were.

  • Manne

    Good points, both of you, and thanks for leaving them. :)

    About silver bullets, I don’t think there are any. Ever. As with everything, balance is key, and what works for one may not work for the other.

    It’s a very valid warning though, and thanks for pointing out Cristina. We are supposed to enjoy life and our bodies, and if we don’t, tracking data about it sure isn’t going to help…