Picture This: A Food App that Could Improve Public Health

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french-food-1321903-1279x959The ubiquity of social media and cameraphones have helped spark a revolution for the food lovers everywhere, as diners have inexplicably fallen in love with taking and posting photos of their food.

These photo-foodies have been a boon for apps like Instagram and Pinterest. As of this writing Thursday afternoon, on Instagram alone there were 148 million posts that used the hashtag "food" and 66 million using hashtag "foodporn."

How does this relate to public health? To begin with the most basic premise, food is essential and life sustaining, so it matters to all of us. But more precisely, one research group at the Salk Institute is paying close attention to this social media/picture trend to document how many hours per day that research subjects eat -- based on the photos they take.

Here's how it worked:

The researchers, publishing in Cell Metabolism, created a free app and asked volunteers to snap a photo of everything they ate. The app then records the photo, with a time and date stamp, and sends the data to researchers. The study's overall goal was to look at the time span between the first meal of the day and final meal, to learn about people's eating habits.

The results showed that the majority eat over a 15-hour period each day. Some research suggests that limiting the "eating window" to 10-12 hours per day may contribute to weight loss. Their sample size was small, but of their volunteers interested in weight loss researchers set the app to help them restrict food intake to a 10-hour window. Without changing the types of food they were eating over 13 weeks, this volunteer group lost an average of 3.5 percent of their initial weight per person.

Setting the researchers' initial hypothesis aside, the overall response received from participants appears to be encouraging for future implications of the app. Subjects were more than willing to snap photos of any and all their meals. From candy bars at 10 am, to a cookie eaten while pumping gas, to crackers munched at the keyboard, the data set of total food intake from these subjects appears to be fairly comprehensive.

Most of collected data and studies on nutrition and food intake are currently based on responses to questions such as: "how many times did you eat a cookie in the last month?" or "how frequently do you eat fast food?" As a result these studies have been deeply flawed, in part because they rely on unreliable human memory and because people give biased answers.

How many of us would admit to eating a candy bar at 10 am? So the app appears to solve both of these problems, and therefore it could revolutionize the way researchers collect data about food intake.

But it's not just about collecting data. The app's success speaks to the overall trend towards the "gamification" of personalized health. Humans, it seems, are hardwired to respond positively to games, and healthcare games are no different. Wearable personal movement trackers like the Fitbit have been extremely popular, as they turned movement into a game. This device challenges wearers to walk a certain amount and then when they get there, it challenges them to walk even further.

Between the high compliance with the Salk Institute's app and the popularity of gamification apps, a photo-based food diary app may prove beneficial to public health. We may be a long way from having a calorie-counting app determine a person's caloric intake simply by scanning the food images captured in a photo, but this study suggests that if that day ever comes, the benefits could be substantial.