Archive for October, 2010

75% of us will be overweight by 2020 says new report

October 30th, 2010

A new report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has shed more light on the terrifying reality of our seemingly unyielding obesity epidemic. Entitled “Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit Not Fat,” a team of health economists summarized research on topics like obesity trends, intervention effectiveness, and the economics behind them.

The graph below are the current levels of obesity and predicted future figures if we continue at our current pace:

75% of Americans are supposed to be overweight by 2020. These numbers pose a terrifying threat to the world’s health and economy. Currently in America, the direct cost of medical costs of obesity are about $93 billion dollars (read more), not to mention the indirect costs of the many associated diseases.

What is going on here? Despite the billions of dollars invested in weight loss research and interventions, we can’t seem to slow this trend.

What happened in the late 70s that caused this sudden spike in obesity?  The problem with going back in time and finding an event which coincided with this trend is that you will likely find a correlation, not a cause.  Never the less, some researchers have provided some insight.

In a study on refined carbohydrate consumption in the US, researchers found a dramatic rise in carbohydrate intake in the late 1970s, and correlated it it with obesity rates:

The Center for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found a similar trend. From about 1976 to 2000, the percent of calories from carbohydrates steadily increased, while the percent from fat and protein slightly decreased.

These trends have caused many to believe carbohydrates are the cause of the obesity epidemic.

But to assume causation from a graph like the one above, would be to make a fundamental mistake in the world of statistics. It would be like a college student theorizing that sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches the following morning, when actually it was those five appletini’s the night before that did it.

We are on pace to overwhelm our healthcare system and decrease the lifespan of our entire population. Something needs to change.

Dietary Research, Nutrition and Weight Loss, Trends

Broccoli Man Interviews for PhotoCalorie Spokesperson

October 27th, 2010

We are looking for a PhotoCalorie spokesperson. Someone who is passionate about nutrition, and can get our message out to the masses. Our first interview was with Broccoli man, a 33 year old part-time superhero who enjoys yoga, acai berries, and eating vegetables. When he was a child, his passion was eating broccoli.  His love for vegetables ostracized him from the other coke-drinking-dorito-eating children.

During recess one autumn afternoon, Broccoli man (then known as Ben Barker) was wandering the playground in solitude when he came across something magical. It was a broccoli stalk, golden and glowing. Overcome with excitement, he ate that broccoli in one sitting. Little did Ben know, but that broccoli stalk would change his life forever.

Ben awoke the next morning, covered in green spandex with a broccoli stalk imprinted on his chest. As it turns out, that broccoli stalk was infected with a radioactive strain of salmonella. From that day forward, Broccoli Man acquired the uncanny ability to detect and pinpoint the exact location of unhealthy eaters. Despite his impressive talents, we have received a large number of super-hero applicants, and will decide on one shortly.

Here is a video of Broccoli Man’s interview:

You may have seen Broccoli man in a recent Geico commercial. Due to the poor state of the economy, the demand for super-heros has decreased dramatically, forcing him to settle for promoting car insurance.

Stay tuned for more interviews in our quest to find the right super-hero for the job.

PhotoCalorie Spokesperson

Egg Farm Salmonella Outbreak: A Blessing in Disguise

October 24th, 2010

The FDA has cleared Hillandale farms to sell their eggs again, as a recent inspection has revealed they are taking steps to reduce salmonella poisoning (Entire story here).

For those of you who were unaware, this past summer, public health officials in a few states noticed a rise of cases of Salmonella poisoning. It was traced back to two farms in particular: Wright County Egg & Hillandale Farms, which led to a nationwide-recall of about 500 million eggs. Meanwhile, roughly 1500 people got sick.

It doesn’t take a public health degree to surmise that the results of the congressional investigation were not pretty. According to the New York Times, the congressional report discovered the presence of dangerous bacteria as far back as 2008. Over a 2 year span, there “were 73 instances…in which sponges swabbed on egg conveyor belts and other areas in Wright County Egg’s barns showed the presence of salmonella bacteria, including the strain that infects eggs and causes human illness.” In other words, the farmers knew there was salmonella present in their farms, but according to congress, didn’t do much about it. A really scary thought, considering how many people eat eggs every day.

Unfortunately this seems to be the rule, not the exception.

To the vast majority of animal and egg farmers in America, food safety and responsible farming take a distant back seat to their bottom line. If you could imagine the filthiest, most inhumane, living conditions in which the animals you get your food from are raised, you would probably just scratch the surface of reality. Since we are talking about eggs in particular, lets take a look at chicken farms.

The chickens pictured above can be defined as “Free Range” as long as they have “access to the outdoors.” This could be a small door at one corner of the barn that is open for a short period of time each day. The chickens that aren’t put directly by that door are out of luck.  Not the warm, green, outdoor scene of happy chickens I pictured when reading “Free Range” on my egg containers.

In actuality, Free Range birds tend to be in a dark barn with thousands of other birds. Their feed, which often contains chicken parts, is infused with antibiotics to try to prevent the diseases they will inevitably get living in these conditions.

As genetics research and technology improved, chickens were genetically engineered to grow larger breasts and reach their maximum size in a fraction of the time it would take a typical bird. An incredible achievement for the meat industry, enabling them to make more money per chicken. Unfortunately, the chickens’ legs were were forgotten in this process. Many of these chickens can hardly walk more than a few steps, due to their unnaturally heavy upper bodies supported by their normal legs.

If you buy chicken from the super-market, it is almost certain that they were raised this way, even if the packaging says “All natural, free-range, cage-free birds.” This applies to restaurants as well. Factory farming has become such a profitable business because just about any restaurant or fast food chain that serves meat buys from these factory farmers. Why wouldn’t they? It’s so much cheaper than buying from a local farmer. Chipotle is one of the few major companies that does not agree with this philosophy. You can read about their “food with integrity” here.

This doesn’t mean everyone must become a vegetarian. Buying your meat and eggs from local farmers or Whole Foods can help. Although it isn’t perfect, Whole Foods provides meat that is antibiotic free and usually raised in much better conditions. Eating at Chipotle instead of Qdoba or another chain will help as well.

Sometimes a crisis is needed to catalyze change. Hopefully this was that crisis.

For more information on factory farming and the current state of the food industry, you can read books like: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, or Michael Polan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Food Marketing, Food Safety

Connected Health Conference 2010

October 22nd, 2010

I had the pleasure to attend the Connected Health Conference this past friday.  The title of the conference was The Way Forward: Reform’s New Focus on Health and Wellness, Independent Aging, Chronic Condition Self-Care and the Tools That Support Them and it was one of the best conferences I’ve attended in a while.  I came away with a number of new ideas to promote behavior change for PhotoCalorie – some of which we’ll roll out shortly, so stay tuned!

Here are some highlights from my notes:

BJ Fogg:

  • Words to live by “put hot triggers in front of motivated people.”  Hot triggers are anything that allows a user to take action – “click now!” vs. billboard that says “drink milk” that you see while you are driving.
  • Start small and then build off your success.  You learn how things work.
  • Formula for behavior change: Behavior = motivation * ability * trigger.  Start with triggers, then ability, and finally motivation.  Motivation is the hardest to address.

Sheena Iyengar and her book The Art of Choosing.

  • People can’t decide when they are presented with more than 7 choices (+/- 2).  They end up doing nothing.
  • Solution is to decrease the number of choices and make the choices clear and meaningful.  A successful choice results in higher user satisfaction and trust.

Kevin Volpp at U. Penn.

  • Economic incentives can be effective to induce behavioral changes but you need to be careful.  In weight loss studies, when the incentive was discontinued people gained the weight back.
  • Lots of discussion about carrot vs. stick approach.  The “stick” approach has not been studied as much mainly because it is riskier for employers since the employees are likely to complain (read: lawsuits).
  • Anticipated regret is another type of motivator.  For example, “You didn’t reach your weight loss goal for this week but if you had you would have won XXX prize.”  This creates a sense of loss and people are more likely to participate next time.

David Rose from Vitality created Glow Caps to improve medication adherence – it’s pretty clever.  Here are his slides.

ANT+ appears to be really nice protocol to connect to all kinds of wireless sensors.  Imagine having your phone communicate with your scale or a sensors on your bike communicate with your computer that track calories burned, power, and distance traveled shown on a map.  ANT’s parent company is Garmin.

Random Facts

  • 30% of people have apps but only 23% use them.
  • 1 out 10 adults didn’t know if they had an app.
  • 1 out 10 users have some type of health app (broadly defined).
  • 50+ age group is the fastest growing social network.  Apps need to be designed for this age group.
  • Obesity costs $73B in lost productivity .
  • Japan has penalties for poor health such as large waist sizes.

Behavior Change, Conference, Dietary Research, Ideas

The Genius and Horror That is Movie Theatre Popcorn

October 19th, 2010

Watching the new blockbuster at your local movie theatre will probably cost you $10 or $11 bucks. That is, assuming you don’t venture to the snack bar. The large bucket of popcorn is almost the same price as the movie ticket. How is that possible? And can people actually eat all that popcorn during the movie?

It turns out that the high price of popcorn is an ingenious way to minimize ticket prices while maximizing profits. If the theatre kept popcorn cheap and increased movie ticket prices, less people would probably watch movies, and most of that extra money from more expensive tickets would be lost to the movie studios. But if instead they keep movie tickets “cheap,” and charge an absurd amount of money for popcorn and snacks, the theatre pockets all of that money. So essentially, buying popcorn and coke at the theatre keep the ticket prices from rising. But the genius does not stop there. Movie theaters also employ another marketing strategy to increase their profits. It is the same basic idea Mcdonald’s has been using for years.

In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser explains how much profit there is in selling coke:

The fast food chains purchase Coca-Cola syrup for about 4.25 a gallon. A medium coke that sells for $1.29 contains roughly 9 cents’ worth of syrup. Buying a large coke for $1.49 instead…will add another 3 cents’ worth of syrup-and another 17 cents of pure profit for Mcdonald’s.”

The idea of super-sizing your drinks seems like such a great deal. The customer gets more for their dollar while the company’s profits soar. Movie theaters are no different. Buying the $8.50 bucket of popcorn costs only cents more to make than the small or medium bucket. So when the cashier says “Would you like the giant bucket for 50 cents more,” of course you will say yes!

But before we get to the nutrition of movie popcorn, theatre’s have one more trick up their sleeves to get you to eat more popcorn. In 1999, a man by the name of Brian Taylor, a student at the University of Michigan at the time, started adding his own seasoning to the popcorn he made in his dorm room. It was an instant hit with all his friends. Brian realized he had something special, so he “contacted a team of flavor experts with over 50 years of experience to help perfect the seasonings.” Now Brian is a millionaire and founder of Kernel Seasons.

Movie theaters started placing his seasonings, called Kernel Season’s Popcorn Seasoning, near the snack stands because they discovered that popcorn sales increased when it was available as a topping.

But onto the nutritious popcorn. According to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “a medium popcorn and soda combo at Regal, the country’s biggest movie theater chain [has]: 1,610 calories and three days’ worth—60 grams—of saturated fat.” Or the equivalent of 3 McDonald’s quater pounders with 12 pats of butter, as they put it. Or the daily amount of calories recommended for a 5’2″ 120 pound woman. So what drives someone to eat the whole bag. Is it the incredible taste of fresh popcorn? Or maybe it’s the salt?

According to Brian Wansink Ph.D., a professor of consumer behavior and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, it is actually the size of the bucket.

He performed an experiment at a movie theatre to prove it. The subjects in his study were 160 people going to see Payback, starring Mel Gibson. As they entered the show, they were told it was “Free popcorn and soda night” to celebrate the Theater’s one year anniversary, and were given a free soda, and randomly given either a medium or a large popcorn. To try to eliminate good taste as a co-founder, the popcorn was 5-days old and stale.

After the movie was over, the people were asked to fill out a short survey, and their popcorn bags were weighed to see which group ate more.

The results were unexpected: the people given the large buckets of popcorn ate 53% more popcorn than those given the medium.

  • When separated by perceived taste of the popcorn, there was no significant difference between the people who rated the popcorn as gross and rated it as tasty
  • Larger packages stimulated 49% more consumption with relatively favorably rated popcorn (93.7 vs. 62.9 grams), and they stimulated 61% more consumption of relatively unfavorably rated popcorn (92.1 vs. 57.3 g)
  • Those who rated the popcorn as relatively favorable, ate more from large containers than small and this effect was further magnified if accompanied with a person of the opposite sex.

Although they didn’t control for things like stress induced by Mel Gibson’s acting ability, it seems like ordering a large bucket of popcorn makes you eat way more than if you would order the medium. So next time you go to the movies, order the small popcorn, or sneak in your own.

Food Marketing, Nutrition and Weight Loss

How much beef fat did you remove before eating in High School?

October 17th, 2010

It seems like every day, a new study emerges finding a link between diet and disease:

Heavy Drinkers Outlive Non-drinkers

Low-carb diets may cause cancer?

These studies found an association between a part of the diet, and a particular disease. In other words, the first one says people who drink heavily may live longer than non drinkers, and the latter claims people who eat a low-carb diet are more likely to get cancer.

Below is a screen shot of an actual food frequency questionnaire created at Harvard University to determine high school eating behavior:

These questions were given to Nurses, asking them to recall what they ate 40 years previous. Here are some others:

  • Between the ages of 13-18, how much beef fat did you remove before eating?
  • How often, on average, during high school did you eat dark meat fish?
  • How many Yams did you eat, on average, per month?

How could someone possibly remember what they ate that long ago. And if they do remember, are we to believe these subjects are being perfectly honest, and not reporting more of the healthy foods and less of the bad ones? Fortunately, this question has been studied, and that it precisely what happens. But to be fair, most such studies don’t ask about your eating habits 40 years ago. Maybe just in the past few years.

Graph Taken from Chris Masterjohn's blog of the daily lipid.

The same person who created these questionnaires, Dr. Walter Willet, also looked at their accuracy with 173 nurses in 1980(read abstract of study here). These nurses were part of the famous Nurse’s Health Study, filling out food frequency questionnaires about their diet. Then, for 4 separate weeks out of the year, the women were given scales and asked to measure out all the foods they ate during that week, and record it in a food journal.

In the bar graph, (taken from Chris Masterjohn’s excellent blog), each food has two bars. The left most represents the FFQ filled out at the start of the year, and the right most bar is the FFQ they did at the end of the year.

It turns out that when they compared the FFQ’s report of the foods eaten to the weighed food records, the foods most accurately reported were tea and beer, while things like meat, fish, bacon, and hamburgers were at best 25% accurate. The researchers also found that the foods deemed unhealthy, like butter, whole milk or processed meats were under reported by 10-30%, while some fruits and veggies were over reported by up to 50%!

This is the level of accuracy we have in our long term studies.

These studies, sometimes involving over 100,000 people are very difficult to perform and extremely expensive. Yet despite all this money and effort, it may be difficult or impossible to confidently say the results represent actual eating behavior, and not just bias.

So take each of these ‘potential diet-disease’ relationship articles with a grain of salt, even if it is by Harvard researchers, reported by the New York Times.

Dietary Research, Nutrition and Weight Loss

Baby carrots to be marketed as junk food

October 16th, 2010

Finally some innovation in vegetable marketing. The baby carrot industry has started a $25 million dollar add campaign to try to get people to eat more vegetables, portraying carrots as a junk food as opposed to just a healthy vegetable. Their goal is to increase vegetable consumption in America, which falls well below the government recommendations of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. According to the Center for disease control Fruit and Vegetable Surveillance Report, as of 2007 less than 25% of Americans eat that many fruits and vegetables.

But maybe that’s expected. When compared to a bag of potato chips, fruits and vegetables are difficult to prepare. They must be washed, cut, and refrigerated. Chips don’t need any of that. So maybe the idea of precut, washed, bagged vegetables is a great idea.

Targeting kids with their advertising, the commercials include awesome things like guns, explosions, crunch sounds, and pterodactyls!

Since carrots are rich in vitamins, high in volume and relatively low in calories, eating more carrots each day will likely improve your health and maybe help you lose weight. The Beneficial effects of vegetables are consistently shown to combat all types of diseases, high blood pressure, and improve weight loss.

So grab a pre-packaged bag of baby carrots, eat 5 fruits or vegetables each day and track your progress with PhotoCalorie!

Nutrition and Weight Loss

iPhone app update available

October 15th, 2010

We have released an update to our iPhone app!

  • We fixed a few of the bugs involved with refreshing your page.
  • Further enhanced the user experience.
  • Improved access to our blog via the app.

Make sure to update your app through the iTunes store!

If you have any comments or suggestions, please let us know at

-The PhotoCalorie Team


The new PhotoCalorie officially released!

October 13th, 2010

After months and months of hard work, we are proud to announce the release of the new PhotoCalorie. No longer just an iPhone app, it is now a web-service available to all!

You can view our new site at We have been working very hard to create what we believe is the easiest to use food journal on the planet. Below is a list of the major changes we have made in order to improve our service:

Automatically syncs with desktop:

Now that there is a desktop version, you will never be without your food journal. Whether you download use iPhone app or access the site through your smart phone, your entries will automatically update on your home computer.

Search for multiple foods at once, including serving sizes in the search:

Never before has a food journal been able to search for an entire meal and the serving sizes of each individual food with one step. The days of  “search for one food > choose that food from a large list > choose the time you ate it > choose the servings >search for the next food > choose from a list…” are no longer.

Now all you need to do is type: food1 * serving size1, food2 *serving size2, etc.

Food Database 6X larger:

We have spent a lot of time improving our database. We have 6X more foods than before and all our serving sizes are standardized to the servings typically consumed. (They can be viewed here)

We have also dramatically improved the accuracy of our search, which is an on-going process.

It is free to search our database and download the iPhone app. We also are offering a 30 day free trial for all users for the rest of our features.

Hope you enjoy our progress!