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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Pedometer for Eating

Researchers at Clemson University have developed a device that counts your bites.

  • August 25, 2011

File this under “Weird Ideas that Just Might Work.”

Across the country and the world, people are trying to lose weight. They’ve been trying for decades. Somehow, though, as a nation, we keep getting fatter. Shouldn’t technology be able to solve this?

A handful of researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina think so. As one of them, psychology professor Eric Muth, recently explained, “At the societal level, current weight-loss and maintenance programs are failing to make a significant impact….Studies have shown that people tend to underestimate what they eat by large margins, mostly because traditional methods rely upon self-observation and reporting.” If the problem with dieting is faulty data collection and lack of accountability, it follows that solving those problems should go a long way to fixing a broken dieting regime.

Muth and a fellow professor, Adam Hoover, decided to build what they call “a pedometer for eating,” which they dubbed the Bite Counter. Worn on the wrist, the gadget apparently is able to measure the bodily rumblings typical of the motion of grinding teeth together, and at the end of the meal, the Bite Counter will tell you just how many bites you took. Voila! Data integrity and personal accountability restored. Manufacturing of the devices is underway and 20 subjects are currently taking them out for a one-month trial spin.

Of course, there is one major assumption at play here—an assumption so big that perhaps we’d better re-file this under “Weird Ideas That Just Might Work (But Almost Certainly Won’t).” As The Engineer says in its report on the device, “Preliminary data suggest that bite count can be used as a proxy for caloric count.”

Really? Whose preliminary data? As a commenter on the site points out, “20 bites of salad does not equal 20 bites of chocolate.” Furthermore, the device, which is only said to be about 90% accurate, has no measure to distinguish massive bites from nibbles. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether the device truly measures bites—like that first one you take out of an apple—or chews, which vary from person to person and food to food. Chewing more per bite is actually said to be a good way to lose weight, since it’s a way of slowing you down as you eat.

So while it’s a neat and eye-catching idea, ultimately, we have to reject the Bite Counter as something like technology for technology’s sake. A dieter with the wherewithal to put on an bulky, ugly wrist-device and take note of the numbers it spews back ought to be a dieter with enough wherewithal to take simpler measures—photographing a plate, or weighing it, or simply making a note of the food consumed. There are probably ways technology can help fight the obesity epidemic tearing through the country. The Bite Counter, though, ultimately won’t be the gadget that does it.

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