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Can a food-tracking app help promote healthy eating habits?

Nutritionists often recommend keeping a daily food diary for several weeks or longer to help meet weight-loss goals or to improve overall health. And now, to aid in such diary-keeping, there are smartphone applications that allow users to calculate calories by snapping photos of meals.

But can the data gathered by those apps be mined to derive insights into our collective nutritional choices and be used to help promote healthier eating habits? Creators of the food-tracking app The Eatery - including Stanford Medicine X speaker Aza Raskin - believed so, and they analyzed data from 500,00o user meals. According to a recent Technology Review article:

Patterns found in [The Eatery app] data show, among other things, that the healthiness of a person's food choices inexorably decreases as the day wears on, that a person's social network explains roughly a third of that person's food choices, and that users' healthiness scores correlate well with obesity rates in major U.S. cities. An infographic illustrates these and other facts and trends from the Eatery data.

The Eatery findings match up with published medical studies on eating habits and obesity. That similarity suggests that what looks like a fun mobile app could also become a powerful new way to intervene in people's diets, says... Raskin, cofounder and chief vision officer of Massive Health, which released the app. "We found that for every hour of the day people eat worse," he says. "That's very actionable: if you decide between lunch at 12 or 2, at 2 you'll eat 4 percent worse." A mobile app that nudges people to eat lunch earlier might be able to cut many calories from their diets.

The company is now working on other health apps, and a University of Pittsburgh professor notes later in the story that "many medical researchers too, herself included, are looking to mobile technology to make a better connection between patients' lives and medical interventions into lifestyle." Here at Stanford, Abby King, PhD, at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and colleagues are currently testing three smartphone applications that challenge midlife and older adults to walk more, sit less or eat fewer calories.

Previously: Eat a carrot and exercise – or your iBird dies, Mobile devices help remove barriers to fresh food and Mobile phone app helps manage diabetes
Photo by KellBailey

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