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Piers Fawkes: What I Learned From My Week Of Photographing My Diet

Fit or fat? The crowd in the cloud let me know that my perception of my diet differs from the reality.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
Piers Fawkes, PSFK on February 20, 2012. @piers_fawkes

A short while ago, the team at PSFK HQ were talking about how self-tracking was connecting with social networks to get community feedback on people’s behavior. One mobile application that is using this group dynamic is The Eatery – a service that tracks the healthiness of your diet by sharing user’s photos of their meals with their community.

What happens with ‘The Eatery’ is that every time you have a dish you photograph it with your phone and then rate it on a scale from ‘Fit’ to ‘Fat’ — the scale obviously indicating how healthy you think the dish is that you’re about to consume. Then that image gets sent to a community of other users who vote on your meal.

On my recent week long trip to London I decided to test that app to see how it worked and whether it would effect my diet. The app soon became addictive and a great conversation starter at the dinner table.

A big learning I made very quickly was that my perception of the relative health of my diet and the reality of it was quite different. In my head I think that I occasionally indulge in some of the naughtier foods – but in reality, The Eatery app made me notice that it was the other way around: salads and fruit only made the occasional appearance in my diet. I guess I was saying to myself, it’s ok to have this burger, bacon, pain-au-chocolat because normally I eat well. The app made me realize that I lie to myself and I don’t eat well at all.

What also happened was that it didn’t just help me understand my diet better, it immediately changed my eating habits. When I decided to take the test seriously on my first morning in the UK, I changed my mind on the breakfast menu because I knew I was going to show it to a collective of strangers in the cloud. So, instead of my regular first meal when I visit London (Full English Breakfast) I balked and opted for the fruit bowl. Good choice, said the crowd. I got a score of 95 out of 100 in terms of health for that!

As I used the service I noticed that the crowd people have a different appreciation of what is healthy than I do: a gourmet burger which probably had finely chosen ingredients (or so I told myself) was judged my worst meal of the week at 25. A guilty plate of French cheese I had for dessert when I took my mother out for her birthday got a reasonable 65.

Also, when there was a splash of green on the plate, the food got a better score — that French cheese did come with a celery stick and an apricot. The chicken at a trendy Soho restaurant came in a lovely buttery sauce with potatoes but I think the sprig of watercress helped it get a score of 79 out of 100. Well deceived my watercress. The plate of salad I had when I visited my mother’s house got a 92 even though I’d argue that the ham and coleslaw should have dropped the tally down a little.

The app also made me think about the non-meals that effect my diet. I photographed my drinks. I photographed those cheeky in-between snacks. But sometimes I was challenged: Is coffee fit or fat? Of course that creamy latte (ordered out of habit until I used The Eatery) that I had at the train station is full of milk! But how do you rate a black coffee? I decided it was about a 50: it’s not that bad for you, but too much isn’t good either (despite the low calorific content).

But after a week I decided I had to stop using The Eatery…

Towards the end of the trip I made another observation: I was upsetting the people who were cooking for me in their homes. Sure, the app was a great conversation starter but as I was taking images of the food, you could literally see the cook crossing their fingers. I guess every person who invites you round thinks they’re cooking you a good meal. Sadly, the homemade cheesecake with organic goat cheese that a hostess spent hours working on just got 33. Not exactly the best impression to make at a dinner party. And I had turned up without wine!

I deleted the app but where did this leave me? Hungry and a little happier. The week was a little bit like the first time you try the South Beach Diet and you realize that every single meal you eat has carbs in it. I was happier because I was much more aware of the storyteller inside me who wasn’t being totally honest with himself about his diet.

So what does this say about dietary self-tracking? I think that while many people may sign up for these monitoring tools, they will be used sporadically to give users a nudge, say in post-Holidays January or before beach-season. Beach season… Crikey, that’s not a long way off — time to reload that app ;)

The Eatery

Thinking...