Tag Archives: nutrition
“If I look at this, I have these memories, and I remember this was a good year.”
Collect it and forget it. This could be be hidden mantra of many people engaged with self-tracking, myself included. I will readily admit to buying a device or application with the hope that I can collect enough information to generate a grand insight at some mythical point in the future where the intersection of free time, analytical knowledge, and sample size magically coalesce. Ulrich Atz encountered the same problem. He was tracking, but soon lost sight of the purpose. Rather than giving up he started a new tracking project.
Ulrich started by building on the popular habit and tracking theory, Don’t Break the Chain, based on consistency in behaviors you care about. He identified six major categories he wanted to understand and pay attention to: his evening ritual, fitness, nutrition, learning, sleep, and travel. Rather than using an passive tracking system like Foursquare of Sleep Cycle, he decided to keep track of it by writing on a large wall calendar. In this presentation, given at the London QS meetup group, Ulrich describes his methods and what he learned from this year-long process.
At a QS Meetup in San Francisco about a year ago, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he had quietly built one of the most widely used weight loss tools: MyFitnessPal (with 170,000 ratings on the AppStore, mostly 5s!). Mike Lee explains the focus, passion and patience it has taken to do this.
Q: How do you describe MyFitnessPal? What is it?
Lee: MyFitnessPal is a calorie counter that allows you to easily track your diet and exercise to learn more about what you are eating and how many calories you are consuming and burning. We have a website as well as mobile apps on every major platform, all of which seamlessly sync with one another so you can log at your computer or on your phone, whichever is most convenient. We also provide a variety of social networking tools so that you can easily motivate and receive support from friends and family, as well as stay informed of each other’s progress.
Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?
Lee: In 2005 my wife and I wanted to lose weight before our wedding. We went to see a trainer at 24 Hour Fitness, and he suggested that we count calories. He gave us a small book that had calorie counts for about 3,000 foods in it, and told us to write down everything that we ate. Being a tech guy, there was no way I was going to do this on paper, so I immediately threw the book away and looked for an online solution. There were already tons of online calorie counters available — I probably tried at least 15 myself — but to my amazement, none of them worked the way I thought they should work. They were all incredibly hard to use; I actually found it easier to track on paper than online. I was looking for a new project to work on, so I decided to write my own calorie counter — that’s how MyFitnessPal was born.
Soon my brother joined me. We’ve kept the team very small, while slowly building up a loyal following. We passed a million users a few years ago, and are still growing very rapidly.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Lee: One of the best parts about working at MyFitnessPal is the messages we get from our users. I’d estimate that anywhere from 30-50% of the emails that we get are from people simply telling us how much they love the app, and how much it’s helped them lead a healthier life. People write in telling us that they’ve been trying to lose weight for 20 years, but nothing had worked until they tried MyFitnessPal. We hear from people who’ve been able to cancel surgeries, stop taking medications, fit into jeans they haven’t worn in years, or even things as simple as just being able to stand up without using their arms to push themselves up. We have thousands and thousands of members who’ve lost 100 pounds or more. We’ve even had people get married after meeting on MyFitnessPal.
It’s hard to generalize users’ experiences because we have so many users. And they vary widely: there are people who’ve never exercised, who would find a 15 minute walk difficult, and we have professional body builders.
Still, one thing stands out, which is that the biggest benefit is education. It’s amazing how little most people know about what they eat or the activities they perform, and once they start using the app, it’s eye-opening. They discover what they eat, how much, how often, the nutritional content of the food, and the impact of physical activity. They build up knowledge that stays with them even if they stop logging their foods. With this knowledge they can make their own decisions about what to change in their lives, what trade-offs are best for them. It’s not following some diet fad, but discovering what works for you.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Lee: We really pay little attention to other apps or the media. Rather we’re fanatically focused on our own users. We listen deeply to user feedback, but we don’t just do what they ask for. Instead we try to understand their real problem, and focus our work on the things that we’ve discovered really matter for losing weight.
We know losing weight is really hard and that tracking is a pain-in-the-neck. So, we really work hard to make our site and our app as easy to use as possible. We know that the easier and faster we can make logging your foods, the more likely you are to stick with it, and consequently, the more likely you are to reach your goals. As a tool maker, it’s our job to help make that process as easy as possible and remove every barrier we can to your success. I can’t really point to anything in particular about ease-of-use; it’s just something we focus on relentlessly and something that the team is just good at.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see MyFitnessPal evolving?
Lee: Over the past year, we’ve worked hard on expanding the number of platforms on which MyFItnessPal is available. We’ve released apps for Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, and iPad. Though they are similar, the interfaces are tailored for each platform. Now that we’re available on most major platforms, we’ll be spending more time on improving our core logging tools. We’ve got a ton of ideas on how we can make calorie counting even faster and easier, so hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot of improvements in that area from us in 2012.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Lee: If you’d like to keep up to date on the latest happenings on MyFitnessPal, you can like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/myfitnesspal or follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/myfitnesspal.
Platform: web, iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7
This is the 10th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the last session of the day, we had a few experimental talks on noticing how food changes physical condition. It was also an interesting series of talks that shows the importance of collecting our own subjective data to back up or refute the other technological data that we might also have access to.
I kicked off the session with my talk “Quantifying My Genetics: Why I have been banned from caffeine”. My colleagues and friends helped me quantify my behavior after one, two, or three cups of coffee by giving my agitation a number from 0-10.
I found out that I’m a slow caffeine metabolizer from my genetic results and it seems like there is a correlation between how caffeine affects me and my genes. My genes are not deterministic, I couldn’t have known how caffeine affects me without making my own independent observations.
On a fun note, the crowd guessed that I had one cup of caffeine today, they were right, I had a cup of tea earlier down in the restaurant, away from the conference.
Next we had Martha Rotter who talked about how she experimented with her diet to solve her skin problems after doctors told her there was not much she could do. She did one allergy test where the results said she was allergic to chicken and soy- but after cutting out both of those foods, she did not see any changes but it gave her the idea to test different food groups.
After her experiment with a chicken and soy-less diet, she tried a few other food groups, eventually hitting on cutting out dairy. Her skin cleared up within two weeks of stopping drinking milk, eating cheese.
I think the take away message from our two sessions this afternoon, don’t be afraid to do your own testing, trust in your results.
This is the third post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features many stories by those conducting personal QS projects that are about: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from those closely observing all this QS activity and developing appropriate tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences?
The two primary sources of data for most self-trackers are self-observations and consumer-oriented sensor gadgets. Data from laboratory tests is generally limited to whatever you get from your doctor. Segterra, a new Boston startup, has launched a new service InsideTracker that makes personalized blood analysis much more accessible.
Founder Gil Blander explains what led to its creation and the impact it has had.
Q: How do you describe InsideTracker? What is it?
Blander: Segterra’s InsideTracker is a new web-based service that automatically-generates a set of nutrition and lifestyle recommendations based on a panel of blood biomarkers and the person’s goals, circumstances and preferences.
I am sure QS’ers appreciate the adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and unfortunately most of us don’t have any real data about what is happening inside our body, so it is difficult to know if our efforts to be healthy are really moving us it the right direction. That is the problem that InsideTracker solves. Quite literally, InsideTracker gives you a window into your unique biochemistry so that you can make better informed decisions to manage and optimize your health and performance. Depending on your personal goals it can help you to run faster or farther, have more energy, be more productive and in general feel healthier.
InsideTracker includes the following key components:
- Measurement of a number of key blood biomarkers through a simple blood test, and analysis using InsideTracker’s proprietary algorithms
- Individualized nutrition and lifestyle recommendations based on your diagnostic analysis and a rules-based expert system that matches the individual’s input data with a knowledge base of facts about the relationships between the biomarkers and the desired health and wellness outcomes, such as body weight, physical performance, and subjective criteria of wellbeing.
- Ongoing testing lets you assess progress.
Q: What’s the backstory? What led to this service?
Blander: The creation of InsideTracker is a culmination of my fascination with the aging process, and a passion to preserve health and vitality throughout our lives. When I was 12 I had a close family member die and it triggered in me a desire to know everything I could about why people age and become sick. I did my postdoctoral work at MIT in Dr. Leonard Guarente’s Laboratory for the Science of Aging and came to appreciate the strong connection between aging and overall health.
While at MIT, I caught the entrepreneur bug, but I didn’t quite have a clear product idea. Then I met David Lester. David’s career path has taken him from academia to government, to industry, giving him a rich perspective on all matters of health. David was interested in using systems approaches to create segments of populations based on outcomes. Could we segment the field of health information according to specific populations, even individuals, to improve quality of life?
‘Systems thinking’ is the process of understanding how segments influence one another within a whole. It is taking individual and dynamic characteristics (like biomarkers) and looking at them in terms of how they act as part of a larger environment (like the human body). The combination of using systems thinking plus affordable diagnostic results from a blood sample to create uniquely personal recommendations was something that no other company was offering so we jumped in and launched Segterra to provide that kind of service – and that is how InsideTracker was born.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Blander: While InsideTracker is still in its infancy, early adopters and participants from our pilot have been enthusiastic about their experiences. One user had been concerned about vitamin D deficiency, but using InsideTracker discovered he was fine. Another had been confident about his nutrition but learned he was in fact low on iron. A third has been able to make some minor changes to his diet to move several biomarkers in the right direction.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Blander: Several aspects of InsideTracker are unique:
- We have made using blood results more affordable so that you can use it as a metric to measure health on a recurring basis.
- We have made it easy for the consumer to access and interpret this information and to see time series so they can understand positive or negative trends and take the appropriate action.
- We have defined personalized ‘optimal’ ranges for each of the blood markers we include in the service. A general Lab report that your doctor sees has universal ‘norms’ for each value. A 18 year old man and an 80 year old woman both have the same range of ‘normal’. We’ve been able to bring a lot of science to bear to define optimal ranges for individuals based on demographic and lifestyle differences. It is the difference between knowing what is pass/fail and knowing what gets you an ‘A’ on health.
- We’ve made our recommendations engine very flexible so that personal preferences and needs can be easily managed. If you are low in iron and don’t like spinach, we can make recommendations that reflect these preferences and still help you meet your goals.
It is also worth noting that InsideTracker is not affiliated with any supplement vendor and that micronutrient recommendations are based solely on the biomarker results.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see InsideTracker evolving?
Blander: There are a number of directions that we can take InsideTracker in terms of additional functionality, but we want to do a good job listening to customers and let them drive our priorities. We will continue to enhance our algorithms to incorporate the latest scientific literature and are looking at integration with other tracking tools, adding additional blood markers to our panels, community-building functionality to our website, and a variety of other features, but the exact sequence of things will be driven by customer feedback.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Blander: We love what you are doing with Quantified Self and we are looking forward to becoming more involved with the community. We think this audience can be power users of the service and give us valuable input on how to make InsideTracker better. As a reflection of our commitment, we want to offer a special discount code to QS members that will allow them to save $50 when they purchase the service.
Price: $169 or $249 — QS Member Special Discount Code: QSNATM11156
(If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at email@example.com)
By popular request, we have just launched a global QS forum at: http://forum.quantifiedself.com/
Gary, Dan Dascalescu, and I took some exciting topics from the conference and turned them into forum discussions, with expert moderators to help explore ideas and answer questions. You’ll find discussions on:
Please join in the conversations, ask questions, share what you’ve learned, and come play with us!