IBM Digital Health Program Tracks Food Intake and Calories Burned

As a flurry of health- and weight loss-focused gadgets and mobile apps flood the market, I.B.M. (International Business Machines), is getting a slice of the pie – the diet pie, that is.

After more than 10 years of refining their concept for a program that utilizes data and analytics to help people make better health choices, the company’s patent has finally been approved. The program is very customizable and caters to all diets and lifestyles, and is fashioned around the idea that users can track their food consumption and calories burned to better manage their weight.

Once released, the program will be available in a variety of means, including computer, smart phone, and even watch. And it’s primary purpose is to help steer people toward better choices through awareness and incentives.

The concept for the program came to be after I.B.M  inventor Michael Paolini and a few fellow engineers were eating a greasy meal at Ruby Tuesday’s when they concluded it was their burger and fry diet that was leading to their fuller waistlines. And so, they decided it was time to drop a few pounds.

But instead of going it the traditional route, they decided to make it fun – and technical, as engineers do. So, they got to work on a program that not only enabled people to make healthier choices, but also inspired them to do so.

What they developed, says Paolini, is a program that was highly influenced by hybrid car technology, which shows drivers what their gas mileage is, and gives them a choice to drive in a way that’s either conducive or in-conducive to better mileage.

“It’s that mechanism that empowers the driver to make choices,” he says. “He could still put on the gas and go, but he could also change this technique. That’s the same kind of thing we’re doing here.”

In addition to showing users their calories in and calories out – or in a sense, their ‘gas mileage’ –  the program also includes incentives if they make positive choices. These incentives or ‘prizes’ include movie tickets and Farmville points, just for using the mobile app. But if companies implement the program for their employees – as they’re expected to –  prizes could mean cash or even lower insurance premiums, since healthier employees ultimately cost less.

The idea is simple: Incentivizing people to make better choices works. At I.B.M., for instance, employees can sign up for a health program, such as walking, and receive a $200 cash reward if they complete it within a certain window of time. Paolini says this pushes a person to the next step; and once they follow it, it encourages them to take it a step further.

In addition to mobile and online apps, I.B.M.’s program will also be available in device form. Paolini says it will be about the size of two watches put together, and users can wear the device on their arm to monitor their metabolism. They can also use it to also enter in the food they eat, and track how many calories they’re burning during exercise.

Having the device constantly available allows users to track their calories in and out, giving them more control over their everyday choices, weight, and ultimately, their health. “With this feedback, it’s easier to change your behavior,” says Paolini. “Because without it, you’re left guessing what your progress is.”

Another benefit of the program is that it’s in near real time, which means information is almost up to the second and incredibly accurate. However, Paolini recognizes that, as with any other diet tracking program, there’s no guarantee that people will be honest about what they eat when using the I.B.M. program. It has to be built on trust, he says. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual utilizing the program. “You can strap an ankle bracelet on people if you really cared to, but I don’t think people would do that voluntarily.”

Still, Paolini is hopeful that the program will help bring about positive changes, both individually and corporately when it comes to people’s daily choices. Paolini himself used the program to lose 18 pounds, so he’s incredibly confident in its potential. As of yet there’s no official launch date, but we can expect the new program and mobile app to be available in the near future.

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