Monday, August 2, 2010

The Data-Driven Diet

For the majority of 2006, I was studying abroad in Melbourne at La Trobe University. There were a whole host of reasons I was excited to go, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that one of them was the knowledge that Australian women tended to go gaga over American men. (Said knowledge was imbued in me via every gods damned conversation I had about Australia with any fellow American who happened to be male - not the most reliable of sources.) As it turned out, much to my chagrin, I kept the ladies away with the same remarkable efficiency down under as I did back home. I can't say I really expected to be the cat's meow, exactly, but I was hoping that at least the accent (and the fact that I didn't vote for Bush) would garner a statistically significant increase in attention.

The reasons for my lack of success are probably myriad and very complicated - my inability to be forward, lack of confidence, lack of height, etc - but it was the first time I became self aware of the fact that I was very out of shape. I became motivated - which is easily the most important ingredient for losing weight - and, being the geek/nerd that I am, I took a very data driven approach. 

I found The Daily Plate (now run by Livestrong) towards the end of 2006 and started logging calories, workouts, weigh-ins, whatever I could think of. That, along with starting to bicycle commute regularly in the winter of 2007, enabled me to drop 25-30lbs by summer. I managed to keep it off for more than a year, but my success led to complacency, as tends to happen. By the time I graduated from college in the summer of 2008, I was no longer religiously keeping a food and activity diary. Add to said complacency a desk job at Microsoft and the resulting decrease in bicycle commuting and you've got a perfect recipe for a backslide; I still had a net loss, but by early 2009 I had gained most of the weight back. Shortly thereafter I noticed that I couldn't quite fit into some of my smaller t-shirts and I knew it was time to get back on the wagon.

Admittedly I didn't really start logging again hard core until the beginning of last month - this time using FitClick - but, for me, a data-driven approach is the best way to go about weight management. Measure, record, make a change, observe the results, rinse and repeat. Even better, when you see yourself going in the right direction, information doubles as motivation. Of course, like any weight loss technique, it only works if you have the motivation to stick to it. That's always the rub, isn't it? With the exception of my emergency trip to Massachusetts last week, I've been really good about it the past month or so: recording everything I eat; recording my progress through the hundred pushupstwo hundred situps, and two hundred squats routines (as well as other exercise); weighing myself every morning; and using their meal-planning feature to help ensure I stay within my calorie quota.

But clearly that kind of system can take a lot of effort to maintain, and in order to trust the system it needs to be as complete, accurate, and up-to-date as possible. It can be so easy to slip. On a busy day it can be hard to find time to log everything. After a party it can be hard to remember everything you chowed down at the buffet table. Worst of all, sometimes you just have a "bad day" and it's difficult to motivate yourself to record it honestly. As a  user experience professional might put it, the system is very powerful, but not very user friendly.

This is why I was intrigued by a product advertised on FitClick today:
Except for the weighing in, this seems to do everything I just described for you automatically. I can't say I'm not a little bit skeptical about it; I have no idea how such a device is meant to work despite their seemingly simple explanations; I'm not even sure I believe it really does work. Their clinical study seems to have a decent-enough methodology (I haven't quite read the whole thing yet), but I'd be much more convinced if they compared it against what they're replacing (i.e. a manual system of tracking the same things it does). In other words, is it their implementation of this system the differentiator, or is it just the tracking of these metrics enough? Does the precision make the difference, or does the device simply act as a catalyst for a behavioral change? 

I'm not so sure I'd want to wear that thing on my arm all the time - it's not exactly the best fashion statement ever, and this kind of thing tends to be personal enough that I'm not sure I want to broadcast it for all to see. (I suppose I could just tell people that it's therapy for my less-than-stellar elbow if I were really that self-conscious about it.)

Regardless, the idea is truly fascinating, and it even seems within reach of the average middle class person (based on the prices on Amazon). This kind of device has the potential to give the people - and doctors! - all the data they need to understand what's really going on in their body, organized in a usable and understandable way. People could potentially make decisions based on that information that will improve their lives. Astounding. I wish I worked for one of those gadget blogs so I could test it and see how well it works and how usable it is (you know, without having to pay for the damn thing). But, as  it stands, I think I'll wait a few generations for the technology to mature before welcoming in these particular robotic overlords.

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