Tag Archives: fitness

Algorithm for a Healthy Diet

What can artificial intelligence do for human health? Revolutionize the way we eat, potentially. An opinion article published in the New York Times on Saturday covers the idea of personalized nutrition, made possible by super advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

The article “The A.I. Diet” is written by cardiologist Eric Topol, and he begins by describing his experience as one of more than a thousand participants in a two-week health study where a sensor and a smartphone app helped track everything he did: eating, sleeping, exercise, and more.

Topol’s data was analyzed by A.I. to ultimately produce a personalized diet algorithm. His results consisted of specific foods receiving a grade, like you would on a test. It seems to me that both his experience and the study design overall highlight the importance of understanding how different foods are good or bad for different people – i.e. blueberries affect me differently than they affect someone else with a different genetic code and lifetime of environmental exposures.

Interestingly, a version of Topol’s study exists as an actual test – commercially available – but analyzes gut microbiome only, not glucose levels or eating habits (here, but it is likely other companies sell something similar).

Topol points out that the main problem is that we often perpetuate the “idea that there is one optimal diet for all people.” More or less, any specific guidance that goes beyond Michael Pollan’s famous quote (and a personal favorite of mine), “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is assuming too much about the similarities between individuals, complex and important factors like microbiome status, genetics, and environmental history. Topol: “[This assumption] contradicts the remarkable heterogeneity of human metabolism, microbiome and environment.”

“We know surprisingly little about the science of nutrition.”

Why? Topol cites difficulty with high-quality randomized trials, which are vital for nutrition science (or any type of science for that matter).

“The more understanding we have of foods and nutrition, the more complex food and nutrient interactions become,” explains nutrition scientist Kristine Polley, PhD. “Therefore, controlled and well thought-out study designs are becoming essential to interpret and translate results. High-quality randomized clinical trials provide insight into how nutrients affect human physiology and allow for accurate and critical interpretation of the data collected and the opportunity to apply these outcomes to better overall human health and quality of life.”

Another issue specific to nutrition science studies is that experiments with food habits require strict diet adherence, and there is not always an effective or easy way to ensure study participants are actually following the study’s prescribed diet.

Thirdly, where does the money come from for these types of studies? Unfortunately, often from companies that benefit from the results of the studies, increasing the chances that the results will be swayed one way or the other or misconstrued. In Topol’s words:

“The field [of nutrition science] has been undermined by the food industry, which tries to exert influence over the research it funds.”

The future of individualized/personalized nutrition depends heavily on the success of dependable nutrition studies. This data is vital for building the sophisticated A.I. technology needed to analyze the mass amounts of data to determine each individual’s specific nutritional needs. So the question that remains unanswered is, can nutrition scientists get it together (and find the funding) to obtain the needed results? I think they can.

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The Fitbit Philosophy

I bought a Fitbit before my trip to Germany because I wanted to see how many steps we walked each day (and pat myself on the back for all of my 10,000+ days). I have the Fitbit Charge (2?) – the one with the clock display that connects with your phone and reads your texts and notifies you when you have an incoming phone call. I also like to call it “the poor woman’s Apple watch.” It has a plethora of features you can read about on Fitbit.com, but I mostly use it for:

  • Counting steps (more often making myself feel bad for not reaching 10,000 than celebrating for reaching 10,000)
  • Telling the time/date
  • Reading text messages during meetings
  • Looking at my active minutes

This is relatively normal Fitbit activity, and what I really want to talk about today is something I’ve been calling “the Fitbit Philosophy.”

‘If you run three miles but you forgot to wear your FitBit, did you really run three miles?”

You know what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling of disappointment you get when you pull yourself out of bed in the morning or stop at the gym on the way home from work before realizing that you forgot to wear your Fitbit. Yes, you’re going to have an invigorating workout, but your steps, active minutes, calories burned, etc. won’t be calculated and counted by your Fitbit. You won’t get to mentally high-five yourself all day every time you check the time. You won’t get to speak the not-so-humble brag “I’m killin’ my steps today” to coworkers who smile weakly and clearly couldn’t care less. You won’t have the satisfaction of getting a “head start” on the ultimate goal advertised by the Fitbit world – 10,000 steps (on my 10,000+ days this usually occurs around 10:00pm while I’m walking the dog or climbing the stairs to my room one last time. ‘Is that a phone call I’m receiving? No, the computer on my wrist following my movements all day is notifying me of my ten-thousandth step with vibrating fireworks and other celebratory effects.’).

The Fitbit philosophy is born from the classic Fitbit marketing position: walking/running at least 10,000 steps a day will make you a healthier individual, and regularly wearing a Fitbit will help remind you to achieve that goal. There is a lot of research on exercise, physical activity, nutrition, and weight loss, so I’m not writing today trying to say that I have all the answers on fitness and how to lose weight and be healthy. But there is one scientist whose research I’ve read a lot of, and I’ll cite him.

David Nieman, DrPH (Doctor of Public Health), has dedicated his career to the field of exercise immunology, and currently he is the director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, just 30 minutes north of Charlotte.

One of Nieman’s studies (from 2016) found that splitting up long periods of intensive exercise into 3-4 ten or fifteen minute sessions is just as healthy as completing one bout of exercise. For some people, exercising in short bouts as opposed to longer sessions actually reduces the amount of post-exercise unhealthy inflammation, muscle damage, and overall stress on the body.

The Data*

75 percent of the people I polled on the Fitbit philosophy have a Fitbit. Here are some reasons why:

  • Calculating calorie intake and calorie expending
  • Motivation to make healthy choices
  • Insight into running workouts and heart rates
  • Earning badges and competing in challenges

For those who did not own a Fitbit, here are some reasons why:

  • Cost too high
  • No desire for fitness direction
  • Preference for maintaining fitness and health without counting calories

Two-thirds of Fitbit owners wear their device every day. The other one-third only wears the device when they happen to remember to do so. All of the Fitbit users had reached the goal of 10,000 steps at one point in their lives:

Over half of Fitbit users feel the sense of “my exercise doesn’t count today” when they forget to wear their Fitbit.

*I’m going to keep my poll open and update the data section as new responses come through

It’s also important to remember that walking 10,000 steps per day won’t necessarily help you lose weight – eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is just as important as (if not more than) regular exercise. If you’re almost completely inactive and obese, walking 10,000 steps would probably make a huge difference. But the more weight you lose, the harder you have to work to continue losing weight – with regular exercise and healthy diet choices. For exercise to make a big difference on weight loss, it really needs to be 45-60 minutes per day, and your heart rate need to be elevated for most of that time.

Read more on this.

Body Love

All that being said, I like to remind people (and myself!) that eating healthy food and exercising regularly is about more than just losing weight – it’s about being healthy and feeling great – physiologically and mentally. Yes, for many people losing weight is a step to being healthier, but in our society (so focused on numbers and standards – think BMI, everyone is different), I think there is always room for a reminder that being healthy isn’t only about what you weigh. In fact, as a foodie, I definitely believe in the mental health factor of eating your favorite foods (for me? Bojangles, fine cheeses, ice cream) and drinking your favorite drinks (for me? Red wine, craft beer) from time to time. What’s life without a little bit of flavor?

Ever wondered, “Why 10,000?” Here’s a comprehensive article from Mayo Clinic on that.

Just for fun, here are some other Fitbit thoughts:

#TFW your 3:50pm 250-step reminder from Fitbit corresponds with your afternoon trip to the toilet

When you and your deskmate at work both check your Fitbits at ten minutes to the hour, you’ll make eye contact but remain speechless. For you both already know it’s step o’clock.

It’s a text message! It’s an Outlook calendar alert! No, it’s 4:50pm and you’ve barely moved in the last hour.

When you know the “step counting technology” is imperfect, because Fitbit says you walked 15 steps but you know for a fact that you’ve been sitting so long, you’ve actually walked -32 steps.