Crowdsourced Food Advice as Good as Trained Experts

smart phone

Knowing which foods to choose can be a challenging part of changing your diet. Weight loss programs often rely on individuals eating healthier, but it can be hard to decide whether or not your dish qualifies as good or bad food. Spending time with a dietician can help with these decisions, but it turns out your friends may be able to help, too.

A new study out this week asked whether smartphone apps that allowed individuals to share pictures of their meals with others might help with deciding whether a dish was healthy or not. The researchers used 450 photos from a popular app called Eatery, which allows users to post pictures of their meals and rate them on a scale from “fit” (healthy) to “fat” (unhealthy). They showed these pictures to three public health students with some training in dietary assessment. The students rated the pictures using a complex scale based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that awarded points for healthy aspects of the food and subtracted points for unhealthy components.

The researchers then compared these scores to the scores the meals had been awarded through Eatery. They found that the scores were very similar, indicating that this type of crowdsourced dietary judgment was fairly reflective of national nutritional recommendations. The study also pointed out that people are not as good at knowing the energy content of food. Crowdsourced systems are best for determining the overall quality of someone’s diet, as opposed to how many calories they’re taking in. Given the difficulty many experience in following what food they eat during a new diet, the authors pointed out that this type of feedback can make food logging much less taxing. A crowdsourced system can give rapid feedback on food while providing information about the healthiness of a meal comparable to following more confusing guidelines about which foods are healthy and which are not.

So if together we know what’s good for us and what’s not, why don’t we always choose correctly? In some cases, we may be truly unsure about how good for us certain foods are. In other cases, we may know something is bad for us, but decide to eat it anyway. Researchers point out that the very act of recording what food you’re eating helps be more present about what’s on your plate rather than reflecting afterward when it’s too late to make a change. Finally, there’s likely some social aspect of using these apps. Knowing others are going to look at and judge the health factor of your food may motivate us to eat differently.

The key is how often you use the app. A prior study they performed found that the vast majority of people install the app once and never use it. Only a small group became regular users who photographed their food and used their peers’ knowledge in a dedicated way. When it comes to keeping weight off, how often you monitor the food you eat can be just as important as knowing the quality of what you put in your mouth.