The Quantified Diet

Originally published on the Bai Blog.

Just as the connected home syncs all of our necessary and leisure devices together to our own personal harmonies, the quantified self movement helps keep tabs on all of behavior – from measuring our finances and sleep patterns to exercise regiments and eating habits. Per the latter, a number of hardware innovations like Garmin’s Fitness Band and Jawbone’s UP keep track of your physical activity as well as what you eat, while cloud-based software like MyFitnessPal makes it easy to log your meal and monitor caloric intake. And both acquire a tremendous amount of data about the what, when, and how of how modern, food-conscious people eat.

What the Data Says

Jawbone recently culled much of its own data sets since they launched smart food tracking this summer to get a strong picture of the eating habits within the UP community. The trends they found may not be the most shocking things in the world, but it’s interesting to study and compare with your own habits nonetheless. UP specifically measured the most logged 100 foods and beverages with time of day. This data was turned into a “global menu” of common foods enjoyed throughout the day. Even the most dietarily conscious of us prefer sweets in the morning – almond milk, brown sugar-coated oatmeal, cream cheese – and moving to more savory choices as the day progresses.

Fitness Trackers

Jawbone visualized this data with a series of robust interactive graphs mapping the most common food habits among users. White meat rules the protein category during lunch, while red meats anchor most evening meals. Sushi is most popular around midnight, suggesting a more urban-dwelling population amongst UP users. Vegetables are non-existent in the morning unless paired with eggs (and it honestly appears we could be eating more at any given time). Dairy is almost unilaterally enjoyed in the morning, and we tend to make most of our id-satisfying fatty choices in the afternoon, with a special ice cream dominance in the evening hours.

Healthy Hedonists Rule

The big takeaway from this data? The typical UP user isn’t necessarily your chia seed-obsessed, uber health-conscious warrior. The eating habits recorded reflect a common Western diet replete with both good and bad choices. While enjoying a cheat day during a diet is not only common but sometimes encouraged, that vegetable consumption ranks so low within the UP data and late night fats and oils so high suggest that simply having numbers to reference isn’t enough to motivate a less-driven user toward healthier eating. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal notes that while sales of popular superfoods like kale and quinoa have increased, so have Kellogg’s Pop Tarts.

Using another data set of tech-centric users, Twitter, the University of Arizona analyzed popular foods and eating trends by state based on how often a food was discussed. Again, as a whole, Americans are not overly health-conscious, with grits cleaning up a wide swath of the east coast and south. Though some interesting surprises arose in the study – sauerkraut in the high desert of Nevada, tacos hundreds of miles from the Mexican border in Kentucky, and durian fruit in rustic Maine.

Though technology can only assist and not provoke real motivation, that doesn’t stop enterprising app developers from trying new angles in leveraging quantified self technology to help people control their impulses. Meal Snap has been around for a few years, an app that will tell you the food on your plate and its caloric value. While novel, the app relies on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service – one of those deals where people looking for extra income can view and identify information for pennies a pop. SRI, the team that created Siri before Apple acquired it, is working on much more advanced recognition technology that will use imaging and artificial intelligence technology to render a fair estimate on the number of calories you’re getting ready to consume. Those the project is still in development, many tools are already available to assist in the app’s accuracy – for example, identifying the restaurant you’re at and references its own calorie data.

The Power of Peer Pressure

If seeing a more immediate consequence of food isn’t enough, apps also leverage one of the most powerful mechanisms in human behavior – peer pressure. MyFitnessPal has tracked the success of users who participate in fitness tribes – a group of two or more people who encourage and challenge each other to achieve certain health goals and healthy behaviors. Amongst their users, they’ve found that 41% have shared Facebook updates about a healthy home-cooked meal and, within the first 30 days of joining a tribe, have lost an average of 22 pounds.

Fitocracy takes this idea and harnesses the power of tracking and data to create fitness-focused social media. While collecting information about your diet and exercise, Fitocracy offers a knowledge base to provide answers and advice on nutrition and fitness, while the social component provides the pressure you need. It’s one thing to meet personal fitness goals on your own, but you’re more likely to go above and beyond when trying to impress your friends and collect Foursquare-like badges.

Undoubtedly, improvements and enhancements to the quantified self will continue as wearable technology becomes the norm. As cool as many of these gadgets and cloud apps can be, the real tide-turning factor in adopting healthier eating habits is still analogy – the real self.