Quantifying Food Habits with Quantified Self

#missionfigs #farmersmarket #wholefood


Escapism and boredom: These are just two of the many reasons I might find myself mindlessly eating. And I’m not alone.

Throwing in my constant daily distractions (including work, life, constant connectivity to media) I easily fall into patterns of mindlessly eating.  I may be stressed and eating to escape, or maybe I’m bored because I don’t have those five seconds of my day filled with something. Perhaps I’m simply so busy that I’ve postponed my decision making around what to eat until I’m starving and will consume whatever is in front of me. Regardless, without intentional thought, these patterns become bad habits that are increasingly harder for me to break or even identify.

How can we get hooked on more meaningful relationships with food?


There is a lot of literature out there on habit cycles, habit formation, and hooking customers, but one of my favorites has been developed by Nir Eyal of NirandFar.com. The framework includes a trigger (internal/external), an action, a reward, and a commitment.

Tying these concepts to food, we can find insights into how habits play into the food consumption cycle. How do we create and break habits?

Let’s start with an example:
I’ve been working all day, trying to reach a deadline and I’m stressed (trigger). I want a piece of dark chocolate-covered salted caramel (a reward that has satisfied my stress in the past), but I can’t find any. I could go to the store to buy some, but it’s several blocks away – and I just don’t have the time (action) to spare to go there, eat my chocolate in the shadows like Gollum, and head back. I do recall seeing donuts in the kitchen this morning. Too far, but the apple on my desk just isn’t going to do it for me. I walk to the kitchen (action) and find only half of a cinnamon doughnut left.  I consume (action) the doughnut (reward). I promise myself (commitment) that I will buy an emergency sleeve of salted caramels tomorrow to keep in my desk so the next time I am stressed, I won’t end up less than fully satisfied.

Triggers can be internal (such as hunger, emotions, memories) or external influences (emails, images, smells) that can slowly become internal with enough cycling through habit formation process.

Action is based on two factors: Motivation and ability.

How much do you want to eat? How much skill or time do you have to achieve this? (Will you have to make a cake or is it being handed to you on a plate?)

Less friction is better: when an action is easier complete or the more you want to do it, the more likely you will. When it comes to eating, this can be the shopping, cooking, plating – anything that stands between your trigger and you actually consuming the desired reward: food.

A reward is the experience or physical object you receive that responds to/satisfies the trigger. For example, the actual piece of cake you eat may satisfy your emotional trigger of stress.

This is some combination of time, data, effort, social capital or money you complete after you’ve received your reward. A commitment means you complete an action now that reduces the “friction to achieve reward” the next time around.

Interestingly, this makes you more likely to choose this reward the next time your trigger occurs – and may even increase frequency of the trigger occurring (playing with that internal/external trigger balancing act.)

An example could be grocery shopping now for the next time you think you’ll be hungry – or taking a cooking lesson so you can make something faster or closer to what you desired the last time you wanted to eat.

 #cherrytomatoes #fresh #wholefood


Breaking down potential bad habits around food is hard, especially when we may not even realize what’s happening. How might we even know where to start, what’s working and what’s not working?

The most effective way to do this is through self-tracking. Self-tracking allows you to identify your triggers, actions, rewards, and commitments tied up in your seemingly bad behavior so you can better predict, manage and even break bad habits. This can be done through journals, scales, photos, or any other type of media recording. The point is to capture the data, then reflect.

But food tracking isn’t such a new idea. We’ve all been taught to monitor what we eat, track our weight, keep food diaries, even obsessively count calories. In college, I drastically improved my health by tracking using excel and pulling data of everything I ate from USDA National Nutritient Database. (An exhaustive database of nutrition of various types of foods.) But it was hard–the ironic thing about self-tracking is that you have to create habits around self-tracking to effectively learn about the habits you wanted to know more about in the first place.  Several of my friends thought I had lost my mind.

Sounds fun, no?

Fortunately, there are two things making self-tracking easier to achieve: Quantified Self and technology. Quantified Self (“QS”) is a community-driven movement around the concept of self-tracking. You can track your emotions, physical activity, eating patterns and any other variable you choose over a number of different dimensions. The popularity of QS has helped create demand for a variety of tools, including self-reporting software and wearable hardware (on-the-body, e.g., pedometers) that are making self-tracking increasingly easy.


There are a number of products on the market, some that track using GPS, some that make you enter, some that prompt you at specific times of day.

Moreover, many of these allow you to easily share your results with friend, providing additional reinforcement within your social network or with complete strangers. Duty to the tribe!

While there are many software that track your activity, sleep and other lifestyle components, many include or are dedicated to food and nutrition. Below is just a sample of some of these applications and why you might use them.

Why Use it? Name About
I want to set food and wellness goals for myself!

Fig A personal wellness guide for body and soul, Fig’s app lets you set goals and mark how many times you’ve achieved that goal in a given day, week, or other time period. This may include drinking eight glasses of water a day, exercising, connecting with family or even taking a deep breath. There is also a social element, letting you share and compare with friends.
My company wants me to track my health. Sprout Sprout is a corporate wellness solution, so you’ll have to get this through your company. Users can track their activity and find events based on shared interests. There is also a competitive element with features such as a leader board, to help you compete against fellow employees.
How “well” and why am I eating? The Eatery This app is less focused on calorie counting, but on overall how “well” you’re eating. Snap a photo of your food, rate it, then upload. People then vote on how healthy they think it is. You’ll get reports on the time of day you ate and how healthy it was rated.
I love food and I want to track what I eat. Evernote Food While Evernote Food doesn’t help you track your calories, per se, it can help you track everything about what you’re eating, where you’re eating it, and how to make it so you can look back at your eating in a more holistic manner.
I need a better way to compare nutrition when grocery shopping. Fooducate Fooducate takes the USDA database to the next level, offering exact breakdown of the nutrition and provides a “grade” of how healthy that item is. It also has a nice discovery section based on food type, to help you find new alternatives to your favorite, potentially less healthy snacks.ShopWell is another of many similar apps.
I want to know what chemicals are in my food. Chemical Cuisine or This app was created by Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI) and helps you understand exactly what those ingredients are in your food.
I want to lose weight or just get in better shape. My Fitness Pal One of the superstars in the app arena, My Fitness Pal is a site (and has a suite of aps, such as Digifit) that combines tracking of what you eat, how you exercise and a social element that seems to be a recipe for weight loss success for many. They’ve expanded and have several pure aps and some tied to hardware devices.

HARDWARE  (On-the-Body)

For some of us, even having to take a photo of what we eat or turning on an application is too much hassle. That’s when hardware (i.e., wearable devices) might be a great option. Have you seen a friend wearing a bracelet that looks like a watch without a face, or a strange black box strapped to their shoe or clipped to their waistband?

There are a number of wearable products on the market, some that track using GPS, some that make you enter, some that prompt you at specific times of day. Even professional sports teams are harnessing the power of self-tracking and wearable devices to optimize their practice and performance. But to this point, not as many of them are able to track what you’re actually consuming and how your unique digestive system is processing the calories.

Below is a list of some of the current wearables (on-the-body hardware) that automatically track varying levels of physical activity and sleep and include corresponding apps for your smart phone that allow you to manually track food and other measures of wellness—even allowing you to compete with friends via social media. (Although, I’m not sure how much I want my friends to know about my bad habits.)

Co. Name Beyond Automatic Tracking of Activity & Sleep
Fitbit Manually track food via app. Waterproof (to track swimming)
Misfit Waterproof (to track swimming)
Jawbone Manually track food via app.  Water-resistant (Shower, not pool.)
WiThings Manually track food via partner apps.
Body Media Manually track food via app.  Water-resistant (Shower, not pool.)
Basis No food tracking via app.  Water-resistant (Shower, not pool.)


Be it with software or hardware, because I have monitored my exact nutritional intake, exercise, and feelings for periods of time in the past, I am now better able to identify triggers, ballpark nutritional value, and make better lifestyle choices, without being a slave to numbers.

When it comes to QS and practical uses of data, I see one ultimate goal in obsessively tracking data, at least for a short period of time. It’s not to be compulsive in relying on numbers to make better decisions or change our habits, but to help us better understand the patterns of choices we make, the habits we have, to help us develop the intuition to make better choices in the future.

#missionfigs #farmersmarket #wholefood

2 thoughts on “Quantifying Food Habits with Quantified Self

  1. Lifelogging Apps (saga – getsaga.com, momento) also play a role in quantified self – helping users to track their activities – including food and other habits.

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