The Future of Diet Tracking

Anyone who’s ever tried to record their diet over time knows how hard it is to keep motivated. Apps like MyFitnessPal make it easier but still most people give up early.

But for weight loss or health improvements, diet tracking can be incredibly helpful.

Quantified Nutrition

In April, the Dublin Life Logging meetup in conjunction with Quantified Self hosted an evening where health & wellness experts came in to talk about the latest developments in nutrition tracking and the science behind healthy lifestyles.

Tracking Healthy Lifestyles

Tracking food intake is helpful for improving health through lifestyle changes. But motivating people to track food intake is another matter. Tressa & David, health & wellness coaches from the online platform Project Revolution, know this better than most. People forget. They don’t do it when they’re eating unhealthy food. They can lie.

During the Quantified Self evening, we had three speakers talking about alternatives. Project Revolution uses the Pharmanex Bioscanner device as part of its health & wellness tools. This device tracks antioxidants in the body over the last six weeks, giving an objective score to someone’s lifestyle. Once we have a useful metric to track, we can work on improving it.

David & Tressa talked about how people get caught up in the gamification aspect of the device in corporate environments, where healthy competition among users can break out with lifestyles improving to beat colleagues.

This motivation through competition and gamification is where real lifestyle changes can happen.

Auto-Tracking Food

Making diet logging easier is an alternative approach. The team at the Insight centre in DCU, in collaboration with MRIM in France, are working to create a system that recognises calorie intake from pictures of food.

Imagine in the future, people taking snaps of their food with apps. Apps then churn out calorie consumption and nutritional breakdown. In the future, with wearable devices like the Google Glass, this can be even more automatic.

How Does Diet Impact Health?

So what is the standard modern western diet doing to our health?

Donal O’Gorman shared insights into the work he’s been doing as part of DCU’s Centre for Preventative Medicine with the European Space Agency.

One experiment was a ‘Bed Rest’ study, which simulates the effects of zero gravity by keeping subjects for 60 days in bed. Another study dealt with improving nutrition in a controlled environment.

The bed rest study shows the extreme case of what lack of exercise can do to the human body. Metabolic changes — blood chemistry, resting heart rates, bone density, etc. — are monitored during the 60 days. Within these experiments, Donal’s team see negative changes to health with, for instance, blood glucose tolerance reducing.

The opposite end of the health spectrum of the bed rest study was the optimised nutrition experiment. Again metabolic changes were monitored throughout.

While carried out as part of space exploration, lessons from both of these can apply to the general population. Can we track the progression of chronic diseases like diabetes? Can we measure how our bodies are improving with a change of diet?

Tracking changes in the body is not easy. Our bodies are incredibly good at maintaining health through a process called homeostasis. Biomarkers are kept within normal ranges (insulin, blood glucose, etc.). They are good at keeping us healthy until these processes stop working. This is when chronic disease symptoms show up.

Because of homeostasis, therefore, trying to predict diseases like diabetes years in advance is challenging. We cannot just rely on a few biomarkers such as weight or resting heart rate. Many factors need to be taken into account to get an overall picture.

What can we learn from all this?

Tracking our health through weight, heart rate, etc. are useful ways to track health, but, ultimately, we need to be monitoring our lifestyles and improving on them when we can.

Nutrition & Exercise

Nutritional intake can not be viewed in isolation. Calories burned through exercise are just as important for overall health.

Current wearables have still a way to go for accurate calorie tracking. Step trackers don’t include gym workouts. Heart rate monitoring helps but heart rate is impacted by many factors, e.g. stress & caffeine. This is a work-in-progress issue, with companies like DCU based Shimmer working on finding better solutions.

Health tips for keeping healthy through exercising?

We hear that sitting is the new smoking. Experiments like the bed-rest study are confirming this. Standing desks and light exercise for 30 minutes a day help, but they don’t go far enough. For modern office-based sedentary lifestyles, we need more exercise. It doesn’t have to be heavy cardio, but it still needs to be more than 30 minutes.

Wearables can also help here in monitoring how long we’ve been sitting & remind us to move regularly.


Having the full picture of our lifestyle with more detail and how it is impacting our health can help us adopt a healthier lifestyle. Improvements in technology and the latest science help build out this picture for each of us.

But ultimately lifestyle change is what’s needed, and lifestyle change is hard. Better tracking and gamification is what can move this forward.

Life Logging & Quantified Self in Dublin

Life Logging and Quantified Self are on meetup. Quantified Self Dublin is on Twitter and Facebook. Quantified Self Dublin hold regular meetups in the Science Gallery Trinity.

The next event is on stress on Wednesday 21st September. Entry is free.

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