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Is it good for me?

Using a smartphone app to assess the calories and the fitness of the food for me. Image credit: Foodvisor

I read a book sometime ago, “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel Lieberman, and was intrigued by the observation that quite a few of ailments that are common today, like tooth cavity, diabetes… were not at all common in our ancestors. The reason, according to the author, is that our body has evolved through millennia in synch with the ambient, was adapted to the environment. As the environment changed, so did our ancestors’ body over long period of time matching one with the other. The problem is that the biological evolution of humankind has been superseded by the cultural evolution, a much quicker pace of change, so quick in fact that the biological evolution is lagging behind. Cultural evolution has brought to different ways of feeding. No longer berries and high fibre vegetable plus a tiny bit of raw meat, but cooked food, much softer and pleasant to eat.

We developed bodies craving for sweet and fat in a world that was scarce of both, so that if one stumbled for a lucky moment onto some of those the body was quick to transform the food into fat as energy storage for period of scarcity that would surely follow. Today we live in a world that is offering plenty of sugar and fat and that is overwhelming our body capability of management. We get fatter and our biochemistry can no longer control the sugar we keep ingesting.

Our ancestors never had need for diet, to slim down or to see a dentist. They were busy most of the day scavenging for food and chewing long hours the hard fibres in fruits and vegetables (fruits in the past had little sugar content and plenty of fibre). Chewing kept teeth clean and sugar scarcity didn’t favour bacterial flora in the mouth.

Today obesity is a growing concern in developed countries (in the US 39.6% of US adult age 20 and older are obese -with a BMI exceeding 30) and it is getting worse as time goes by.

As it always happen, any problem opens new opportunities. Diet consultants, gyms, and why not, apps are sprouting like mushrooms everywhere and artificial intelligence is starting to play a role.

There have been in these last ten years a few apps on the market that can help assessing what would be the ideal intake of calories for me and that can be used to track the actual calories intake. The problem is that this tracking is cumbersome, I have to input the data on what I am eating and that might get complex (just imaging having to describe the various ingredients in a salad, its dressing…). Even for “simple” entry, like a Cheese Burger, I have to select the dish out of a long list.

Now, thanks to image recognition powered by artificial intelligence (a very specific sort of artificial intelligence!) I have the possibility of hovering my smartphone camera on the dish I have ordered and the information is captured and translated into reminders and warnings by the app. The app does much more than tally the calories over the day. It extract information on balance of fat, protein, sugar and so on and based on my health profile may provide advice and raise red flags.

One example, there are several others, is Foodvisor (I like the name, suggesting both the vision of food as well as “advisor” on food!). You just take a photo with the app and it estimates the various ingredients and quantity providing you with the incremental daily and weekly intake and pointing to potential over-eating and imbalance.

I can imagine that these apps can be useful to draw our attention to what we eat and may help in getting used to a healthier diet. I also expect them to become part of our proactive healthcare with our digital twin directly getting data from an always on camera on our dresses that will pick up images of what we eat, transforming the data capture into a seamless, behind the scene, occurrence.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the article Roberto! Humans have the ability to ignore information which is in contra of their own attitudes. From a pure cognitive point-of-view we all know which food is good, and which not. Apps could maybe go a step further and predict how we would look like in ten or more years, if we continue with our actual diet. Smart phone-cameras help us to see us our elder us, the algorithm can predict how this changes based on different diets.