Visualizing Food Intake for Diet Behavior Change

Visualizing Food Intake for Diet Behavior Change

Obesity is epidemic in America. Researchers around the world are trying to use technology to quantify eating habits and caloric intake with the hope that this information can be used to change behavior. Maybe we will see some people at restaurants taking pictures of their food or scanning barcodes, but is more likely that these burdensome approaches will give way to more passive techniques. Ubiquitous computing developments will allow your cell phone to aggregate pictures of your food from cameras in the environments where you eat. And the earpiece that you wear to talk on the phone will record the sounds of mastication (check out the work of Dr. Oliver Amft at TU Eindhoven and Edward Sazanov at Clarkson University). And all this data will be linked with the purchases that you make. The purchases can be used to query detailed data about the food and analysis of the pictures and sound will reveal how much of it you actually ate and when, all without any effort on your part. So it is clear that it will be possible for people to aggregate detailed information about their eating habits in the near future. The main question to ask is: Is this going to help? Are people going to change their eating behavior just because it is quantified. The answer is probably no. But it may be possible to help them change if the information is presented through meaningful and actionable interfaces with gaming elements and social support layered on top.

Chang Beom Lee MD PhD from the Hanyang University Medical School in Korea is a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health. During Health and Wellness Innovation 2011, he focused on learning about the latest techniques for quantify dietary intake. As a start, he worked on daily visualizations of dietary feedback that aim to improve self-reflection and promote positive change. By leveraging the CollaboRhythm platform in the future, users will be able to share their progress, compete with friends, and receive supportive messages from their dietician.


Dr. Oliver Amft at TU Eindhoven, Edward Sazanov at Clarkson University, and others have shown that it is possible to monitor eating behaviors by analyzing the sounds produced by mastication.

The goal of this project was to begin exploring visualizations of this information to promote awareness and behavior change.

With the help of a dietician, Mr. Hudson has created a plan that includes an eating schedule and caloric input goals.

He has an application on his mobile phone that receives a constant input stream about his eating behavior from a small microphone that sits in his external ear canal. The application on the phone shows him his eating schedule, with white wedges indicating acceptable windows for meals.

On most mornings, Mr. Hudson wakes up late and neglects eating breakfast.

He then eats several snacks before lunch. By the time that he eats lunch, it is late and he exceeds his goal number of calories.

He eats dinner relatively late, although within his eating schedule. The problem is that he again overeats.

With time, Mr. Hudson’s awareness of his poor eating habits improves because he gets constant feedback. The app on his phone also allows his dietician to give him encouraging feedback and tips. This social support is extremely helpful.

Eventually he is able to stick to his eating schedule and appropriate caloric intake. He develops healthy eating habits and no longer needs to monitor his diet so that he can focus on other positive behavior changes.