Can the wisdom of crowds transform your diet?

As pretty much everyone knows, it is hard to face the choice, several times a day, of whether to choose ‘fit’ or ‘fat’ food or something in between. When I noticed that my wife was taking pictures of her food in order to keep a record of how she was doing diet-wise I wondered if there was an app to make such data management easier. It turns out that there was and it was something different from a personal tracking service.

The Eatery is a beautifully design app — a model for app design actually — that lets you take pictures of your food and rate them on a scale of 0 (‘fat’) to 100 (‘fit’). But it doesn’t just leave it there. After all, you may think that chicken salad sandwich is on the healthier end, but would others agree? To counter this, what you do is you submit your food pictures and then others turn in their ratings of your food. Who are these others? Users of The Eatery of course. Because when you submit a meal you are asked to rate those of others. It is really easy to do and let’s face it, you are already in a judgmental mood when you are playing with this app. So pretty soon you have 10 to 15 people and you can see whether you are really eating well or not.

My wife was immediately hooked and was thrilled to see her food choices put her in the 99 percentile of healthiness amongst Eatery users. I then hopped onto the bandwagon. I didn’t do quite so well as you can see from the picture of my progress to the right. But what I did notice is that the whole exercise put pressure on me towards healthier options. What was the crowd going to think? It turned out that that mattered. I even suggested forgoing cake on my birthday but my youngest child told me to eat the cake and just not take a picture. But I felt that keeping with the program was more important. I got a small slice, took a picture and saw my day’s average plummet. Nonetheless, there was a wealth of information being collected here.

Now while it was all very well for a couple of weeks, frustration with the crowd started to step in. I didn’t think everyone was playing fair. People would submit glasses of water. Come on? Yes it is ‘fit’ but aren’t you just trying to up your average? And then I found myself disagreeing with the crowd. Yes, eggs may be bad for your cholesterol but that isn’t my problem? I yearned for a jury of my peers. People I could rely upon to do this right. I wanted people I knew — like on Facebook.

Now The Eatery realizes this and you can connect all this to Facebook. But it didn’t take. So left only with anonymous minions, I dropped the experiment.

That flaw aside, it appears that enough data has been collected from this experiment worldwide that folks behind the Eatery are learning about peoples’ eating habits. As reported in MIT’s Technology Review today, the healthiness of peoples’ food consumption declines over the course of the day. We do worse on weekends than weekdays. A good breakfast actually keeps us healthier thought the day. We also tend to rate our own food more healthier than others do. Vegetarians and those on no carb diets do better than others. Coffee gets rated poorly even though studies show it is not unhealthy. Move West across the US and healthy eating rates increase. But move East across Europe and Asia and they fall. You can see the data here.

Of course, there is another path to healthy eating. That is the path pursued by British 9 year old, Martha Payne. She had the idea of photographing her school lunches and posting them and some ratings to a blog, NeverSeconds. Here is a typical entry:

Food-o-meter- 10/10
Mouthfuls- 32 not including licks.
Courses- main/dessert
Health Rating- 2/10
Price- £2
Pieces of hair- 0
Ease of eating with wrist in stookie- 5/10 hard to hold ice lolly
Wristband- Orange

The blog has been a sensation. She has attracted readers from around the world who submit their own pictures. And, of course, when the press got interested and then criticised some of the lunches, Martha was banned from taking pictures by her local council. Suffice it to say, that council, clearly unaware as to how powerful the Internet could be, was forced by outcry to lift the ban in less than a day. Martha Payne by exposing the cafeteria to the open light has created new pressures to improve outcomes there. All this suggests that we haven’t seen the end of what digital technologies can do to our diet just yet.

This post was originally published at on 21st June.


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