Mobile Gadgets Measure Meals on the Go

By Michael Applebaum, MD, JD, FCLM

If you had occasion to read a prior rant entitled “HDTV” you already know that I am asked to consult on new technology.  If you have not read the rant, let me inform you that I am asked to consult on new technology.

I got a call very recently about a news article that appears, in part, below.  I was asked my opinion about this technology.  The article is from December 10, 2004.  Where ellipsis appear, I have removed text for purposes of fair use and which I deemed unnecessary.

Mobile Gadgets Measure Meals on the Go


SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - The most popular dieting brands are now weighing in with calorie counters and nutritional guides designed for personal digital assistants and combination PDA-mobile phones. Just in time for the season of bountiful temptation.

Weight Watchers International Inc. released this week a program for Palm-based gadgets that works hand-in-hand with the company's online services. It helps record a dieting disciple's progress, eliminates the need for carrying a weekly logbook and shrinks the 25,000-item food database that normally fits into a two-inch-thick reference book into a pocketable gizmo.

Devotees of Atkins Nutritionals Inc. will have to wait a little longer. The company says it will begin offering early next year Atkins 2Go, a carbohydrate guide and weight-loss tracker for cell phones along with mobile software developer Digital Chocolate Inc. A version for Palm-based PDAs, developed by NoviiMedia, is expected to debut in January.

Other diet purveyors, including the South Beach Diet, say they hope to offer similar nutritional guides and weight-tracking services for mobile devices soon.

"We think of it as a global positioning system for their weight loss journey," said Scott Parlee, director of product development at "They can check how many points they've earned on the spot, whether at the gym or at a restaurant. It allows them to stay on course."

(name withheld) now has breakfast, lunch and dinner with his digital handheld every day…

"Knowledge is power, and no matter where I am now, I can find out whether what I think is healthy to eat is bad, or whether what looks bad to eat is actually good," said (name withheld), of Elm Grove, Wis.

…At Handango, a popular Web site that sells applications designed for cell phones and PDAs, about 400,000 people have paid $20 to download the Diet & Exercise Assistant, one of the best sellers in the health category.

Handango executives say they're excited that the dieting heavyweights are going mobile, bringing along millions of potential customers…

…Weight Watchers is targeting the estimated 30 percent of its followers who already own a PDA and hopes others will buy new mobile devices - which start about $99 - just to help them keep count.

There are several important themes in this article:

1. They make money.

2. You spend money.

3. It is the money you spend that they make.

Diet programs for handheld devices have been around like forever.  We are still fat.  The diets that will be coming to a handheld near you have been around like forever.  We are still fat.  Even the youngest, Art Agatston’s South Beach Diet, which is Bob Atkins’ lite, and still unproven as better than the original for purposes of Draconian short-lived weight loss, has been around in its prior iteration like forever.  We are still fat.

Interestingly, it is our love affair with technology that has contributed to our fatness.  Time spent in front of the monitor or TV is highly correlated with being overweight/obese.

There are other problems with these devices.  It is absolutely impossible for them to provide accurate information about any:

Fresh Foods:            unless the precise weight is known and exact macronutrient content (fat, protein, carbohydrate) can be determined.  This may seem knowable, but it is almost always not.  For example, cuts and grades of meats are categorized by a range of fat content, not a specific percentage of fat.  This makes nutritional content impossible to calculate.

Home-Cooked Meals:            same problem as above.  Even meals prepared at home are subject to error and USDA vagaries, though still much more controllable than most restaurant foods.  Meals prepared at home are the preferred choice.

Restaurant Meals:            there is no way for you to know what is in a restaurant meal unless you eat at a fast-food place.  However at fast-food places you might be afraid to know what is in the meal.  There’s the Catch-22.  In general, the chains have reduced combinations of unnatural foods to, well, a science.  Their amazing quality-control over low-quality products makes the handheld devices most accurate in this setting.

Prepared/Frozen Foods:            similar to fast foods from franchises, the commercially-prepared foods industry has done a reasonable job of maintaining accurate nutritional accounting of suboptimal food.

So for the most accurate use of your mobile device, you have to eat:

1. at fast food franchises or

2. commercially prepared foods

These sources are generally not considered the best.  (I will bet you dollars to diets that these companies will distance themselves from this truth.  But if you go to you’ll see that their manual is heavy with Taco Bell examples.)  For further reference see Super Size Me-A Film of Epic Portions directed by Morgan Spurlock.  It is not great science.  It is reasonable entertainment and thought-provoking for some.  The family of one of my best friends saw the flick a couple months ago.  Since then, there have been no requests for fast-food from the kids or adults.

For this purpose, i.e., monitoring nutritional intake, these devices fall into a category of technology called drecknology.

Drecknology is crappy technology.  Crappy, that is, unless you are the company making the money.

To be fair though, there are some potential benefits to these products:

1. They take money from you that you might otherwise spend on food.

2. They can take time from your meal to input data so you might eat less if you eat at the same pace as usual.  If you eat faster to make up for the data input time or input the data after eating (e.g., while you should be working), this benefit is lost.

3. They may provide the regimentation you need to succeed since the books upon which the software products are based were not well enough written to educate or inspire you to success.

In my humble opinion, this drecknology may make someone think or feel that they are benefiting themselves, however, real results are unlikely.  In reality, these “Mobile Gadgets Measure Consumer Stupidity on the Go.”