How AI can help manage diabetes and other food related issues with ‘Just-in-time’ nutrition assistance May 29, 2019

How AI can help manage diabetes and other food related issues with ‘Just-in-time’ nutrition assistance

It is well-known that common health conditions are affected by what one eats and drinks. For example, body weight is affected by caloric intake; blood sugar levels by carbohydrate intake; hypertension by sodium intake; hypercholesterolemia by saturated fat intake, and so on. Other conditions are also affected by diet, such as digestive issues like bloating, flatulence, constipation and loose motion; oral and dental health; energy and metabolism; skin conditions; arthritis; hypo- or hyper-thyroid issues; etc. Also, some health goals are achievable through proper diet, such as longevity, boosting immunity, reducing inflammation, preventing cancer, improving heart-health and managing stress. Sometimes, people need help in following a specific diet such as gluten-free, low-carb, keto, paleo, DASH, Mediterranean, etc.

Dietitians understand that certain health conditions can be better managed through dietary modifications and restrictions, and typically prepare personalized diet plans detailing out specific foods to be consumed in specific quantities at set times. These plans are designed to control one’s intake of specific nutrients in order to achieve certain goals. This is all well in principle but as the saying goes… ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’

Let’s take a look at some drawbacks of conventional diets, plans and interventions:

Diets, often involve restrictions of calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, protein, etc. and require individuals to make drastic changes to what they eat and drink, how much, when and so on. With a burst of initial enthusiasm, they take to their diets, diligently following the instructions for a while. But soon the caloric restrictions take their toll: they are constantly hungry. Also, the deprivation of favorite foods leaves them quite frustrated. Such drastic changes cannot be sustained and in the process they end up gaining more weight than was lost. This is a perfect setup for what follows: intense cravings and binges!

Many weight-loss and dieting Apps require onerous data entry/recording of all food items consumed during each day (often after-the-fact and from memory), tracking and analysis of macronutrients (calories, carbs, fats, protein, fiber…) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants…) and so on. Other approaches provide useful information regarding the intake of foods, and rely on the diligence of the individual to check, analyze and modify their eating habits in order to observe their dietary restrictions or guidelines. However, most of these approaches ignore a basic fact: the best opportunity is the meal that is about to be eaten! While some individuals can maintain this level of effort, most cannot and abandon the app; only a small percentage of initial users continue to engage after a few weeks.

Diet plans require individuals to first remember to follow the plans, and second, to do a good job of actually following the plans. Faced with busy work schedules and social pressure to join others in the act of eating, this becomes very difficult to sustain over time. For instance, when confronted by an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet, few individuals can muster enough willpower to restrict themselves to only the items that are on their diets. Goaded by social pressure, most of the time people feel compelled to ‘taste’ each item; spoon by spoon, they end up eating more than they should, and then call it a ‘cheat day’.

Rise of wellness tech:

Democratization of health & wellness with AI

The best diets are tailored to individual preferences – what they typically eat/do not eat, food allergies, body parameters and markers, specific goals, physical activity levels etc. Integrating all this information is complex and time-consuming, which limits access to such diets to the available time of nutritionists. AI changes this – everyone can have access to the same services since they are not limited to the availability of nutritionists!

As AI dictates a new paradigm in health & wellness, using information about an individual’s body parameters, health issues & goals, fitness interfaces and other preferences, AI platforms can assist nutritionists in setting up a personalized diet plan, and help the individual in following the plan. The individual would not have to worry about remembering what to eat and what not to eat or the size of the portions; the real-time AI-enabled nutritionist will tell them what foods to reduce and what else can make their current meal better. Photographs of meals can be fed to AI enabled systems that identify food items, their respective calories and nutrition profiles to provide assistance at the point of consumption.

This approach would vastly simplify adherence to a diet because individuals would not have to remember their respective diet restrictions, the AI-enabled nutritionist would do it for them. There would be no big changes to the diet, no counting calories, no tracking anything, no onerous data entry. Every meal is also a ‘teachable moment’. What one learns in the present meal gets internalized much more reliably, and changes eating behaviors more effectively.

The power of AI in helping users with early diagnosis of certain lifestyle/ medical conditions

In general, age, gender, genes and lifestyles, especially what people eat can predict certain health conditions; e.g. someone who eats a lot of fat regularly will probably develop heart-health issues. For this, we have to track individual eating habits for a significant duration, which is difficult to pull off. AI, on the other hand is quite adept at this, and will do it diligently and efficiently.

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