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Eating Healthier, with Gadgets and Apps

May 16, 2014

Weight loss is sort of like math: You have to expend more calories than you take in. But to do that math, you have to know all the numbers. Activity monitors — like the Fitbit and the Jawbone UP — passively track the fuel you burn. All you have to do is snap on the bracelet; then your steps, strides, and activity are all used to calculate the calories you’ve spent. That’s all great — but it’s only half of the equation. Where is the passive gadget to track the calories you consume? Between mindless eating and hidden calorie bombs in your favorite foods, without solid data on your intake, it’s easy to get the math wrong.

Dream calorie tracker
What I wish I had is a belt that uses infrared light or sonic waves to determine the contents in one’s stomach and wirelessly transmit a daily report of calorie intake. Can you imagine the power of that sudden realization — that the mango smoothie you just drank has one-third of your daily calorie allotment?! Of course, by then it’s too late. So even better would be a necklace that contains a spectrometer to analyze the contents of your plate and then shows you all the stats before you took a bite. I think we’d eat half as much. Sadly, that technology just isn’t here yet.

Failed dream
The closest thing I’ve seen to my Dream Calorie Tracker was touted last year by a Canadian startup called AIRO. The company said it had developed a bracelet that “uses different wavelengths of light to detect nutrients released into the bloodstream.” With this information, the creators asserted, the device could tell you how much protein, carbohydrates, and fat you had consumed. But nutritionists and engineers expressed skepticism, questioning the science and the sensitivity of the device. One issue was that the dilution and distribution of nutrients would not give an accurate portrayal of food intake when measured at the wrist by a bracelet. Another was that companies have spent billions of dollars trying to create a light-based sensor that works through the skin — and all have failed. So how could a three-person startup manage to do what others couldn’t and mass-produce the device for $200 a unit? I contacted the company, and they say they have “taken a step back,” basically canceling all preorders and going back to the drawing board.

Best real-world options
So if passive tracking of your eating is out, at least for now, the best bets may be on your smartphone or tablet. With apps like MyFitnessPal and Lose It!, you enter the quantity and type of food you’re going to eat, and it keeps a log and calorie tally.

Weight Watchers is completely based on this premise, and it has mobile apps that are a little more user friendly, with recipes that pre-calculate the data you need to log, plus weight/activity tracking — but you have to pay a monthly subscription fee for access. I have used Weight Watchers for years. For me, the greatest benefit comes from forcing myself to write down EVERYTHING I eat — which I hate doing. I’m often too lazy to look something up and enter it into the app, so the mindless snacking goes away. It’s sometimes easier just to keep my mouth shut and wait until dinner.

Best new gadget
If you want even more precise quantification of the food you eat, check out the Prep Pad from Orange Chef. The company is backed by Google Ventures, and the Bluetooth kitchen scale pairs with your iPad to let you weigh and track what you eat. Put an item on the Prep Pad, tell the iPad app what the item is, and it will calculate the fat, protein, carbohydrates, and calories in that food. It’s helpful if you are trying to make one of your family favorites and you really want to determine its nutritional content. But, honestly, until this device has a spectrometer to analyze the food and determine what it is without having to type in every ingredient, it’s not that revolutionary or time saving.

[Related: Your Next Kitchen Scale Will Do the Measuring For You]

So while I wait for the Holy Grail of weight loss gadgets, I’ll just have to put in a little more effort to keep track of my habits and put down the buttered popcorn!