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.

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