Counting Calories

June 8, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

Since watching the BBC’s 10 Things [...], I’ve been paying more attention to the nutrition labels on the food I eat. Lots of these labels are pretty dull and difficult to understand, and I don’t reckon they have any influence over my diet. Also, I’ve no idea what my GDA of calories, fat, saturates, salt or sugars is, so knowing that something has 2.1g of sugar in it is next to useless.

The better labels show what percentage of my guideline daily amount my sandwiches contribute, because then the numbers begin to mean something to me. I don’t count up the various percentages over my day, but I do look out for things that have massive numbers (like the cheesecake that contributed over 30% to four out of the five categories).

Better still (in my opinion, though it looks like I’m wading into a two year old debate in my cutting-edge way) are the traffic light labels that you sometimes see. Red, amber or green depending (presumably) on how big the contribution is to your GDA. Red means “indulge now and again”, amber means “enjoy most of the time” and green means “go for it!” according to today’s sandwich from Boots. That does help me.

Here’s an idea that might help to engage more people in getting a better idea of how what they eat stacks up. How about printing the nutrition labels onto stickers, so you can peel them off the packet and keep them on a card. Then at the end of the day (if you’ve nothing better to do) you can see how many reds there are compared to the greens and ambers.

Going further – if I was going to bring “persuasive technology” into it, then maybe someone should develop an iPhone application that uses the iPhone’s camera to take a photo of the traffic light label, recognise the colours, and automatically add up the totals for you. It would make it much easier to remember, would allow accurate self-monitoring, and could be a good way to engage some people (London is full of people surgically attached to iPhones) in watching their diet.


  • Stephen Watkins

    Good ideas.

    > that uses the iPhone’s camera to take a photo of the traffic light label

    But i think it would be easier to touch the screen on either a red,green or orange blob.

    Also, for calorie counting I think you need better granularity. Maybe down to the nearest 100kCal, and a method for looking up food that doesn’t come in a plastic packet.

    Count up your points everyday and compare with your weight loss or gain and you can tell how many calories you need to add or skip.

    • Jamie Young

      Hi Stephen – I think using the camera might be a bit easier (& more fun), as it might be able to recognise the little numbers in the middle of the blob and count them up for you.

      Might depend how shaky your hand is though. Maybe the default condition should be to recommend that your sugar intake is too high…

      Fancy coding it?

  • Stephen Watkins

    > Fancy coding it?

    I am interested in this area as are quite a few other people. If there’s a ‘persuasive technology’ that hasn’t been applied yet I’d be happy to help investigate!

    • Jamie Young

      Stephen – great, this could turn into something interesting. I’ll talk to some people here, and drop you an email…

  • Robin

    I use a pedometer and a website associated with it to measure calories in vs. calories out. It’s divided by meals and activities. Once I got the hang of it, it was quick easy to do and really keeps me honest about what I am eating. For instance today I started by putting in what I was going to have for dinner and worked back from there to try to keep it all under 1400 calories. I didn’t succeed exactly but kept it at 1500. I am making gnocchi with a cheese and cream sauce for dinner! The site also allows me to track glasses of water, servings of vegetables etc and figures out the fat, carbs and proteins I eat based on my meals. It compares them to the optimum level of consumption. Maybe this type of technology would transfer to an IPhone?

    • Jamie Young

      Hi Robin – thanks for your comment, that sounds really interesting. I’m still hopeless at keeping track of what I eat. Maybe I could grab you for ten minutes next week to find out more? It would be great to get your opinion of what would work and what wouldn’t work if we do end up doing something in this area…