Should You Trust an App to Count Calories for You?

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Love to take pictures of your food but not a fan of food journaling? Perhaps the newest invention from the lab responsible for the technology behind Apple’s Siri could be right up your alley to help you lose or maintain weight.

Dror Oren, executive director at SRI Ventures, told Gigaom.com that they’ve built technology, for now called Ceres, that would allow users to take a photo of their plate and get an approximate calorie count for their meal.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You could say good-bye to writing down or logging electronically everything that goes in your mouth and start using your phone, which is probably already in your hand too much, for something very productive.

I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer; however, I have my concerns.

Overall I am not a fan of calorie counting. I prefer to look at an entire meal’s nutritional benefits (i.e. fiber, protein, fat) and portion size first and foremost. So telling someone they ate 400 calories for lunch might not be that useful. But if Ceres recognized that half your plate is veggies and the other half is split between a high-fiber food and protein, that would be amazing.

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Because of hidden fats like oils and butter used in foods, Oren admits you can’t precisely determine the exact count of the calories in all foods, but he stresses that for many people, getting a range such as 400 to 600 calories is still helpful. However if Ceres is off by 200 calories at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that’s 600 calories in one day—enough of a difference to halt any weight loss.

And those calories mean nothing if you don’t know how many calories you even need to begin with. It’s unclear if Ceres plans on providing this information and how accurate that will be.

I also wonder if the results of the calorie estimate will depend at all on lighting, angle, or overall quality of the photo. I know my food pics aren’t always the best, and some restaurants have even put an end to diners snapping away as they eat.

Lastly, the market is already saturated with weight-loss and calorie-tracking apps, and the verdict is still out on whether they really help. I have seen some great results with my patients who are avid users, but with others they haven’t helped much.  A lot of times it comes down to what they input into the app. A picture never lies—or does it? 

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