Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Apps ad nauseam

This is some sort of a Sunday-evening rant. Be warned.

I’ve spent several hours browsing all sorts of apps and devices for health-related goals, and right now I don’t want to see or try out any of them. I guess I reached the saturation point. Who are the intended users of these thingamabobs? Surely not the ones whose need for intervention would be the highest.

Mothers who struggle with budget and time constraints, trying to do their best to keep themselves sane while preparing food for their families and working two jobs. Businessmen and -women whose days are filled with one meeting after another, sitting in cars and airplanes, grabbing food where it’s available and entertaining clients over one drink too many. And lonely, depressed teenagers and adults who try to fill their emotional voids with food and end up feeling even worse, triggering another binge to relieve their self-disgust.

It is difficult to understand the worlds that other people live in, let alone design fancy gadgets that could help them change their behaviors (if they could afford them or be bothered to try them out). Unhealthy diet and lack of exercise are often just symptoms of deeper-lying issues. Somehow, the simple idea of eating food has become incredibly complicated.

Let’s say that the (obese or at-risk) population can be split into three groups: first group lacks awareness of healthy habits, the second lacks the abilities, and the third one just isn’t motivated. All groups can to some extent be nudged with upstream interventions that make healthy options more available, appealing, and affordable than unhealthy ones. However, downstream interventions that target individuals need to be tailored to their personal needs. And those needs can be really complex. (For instance, the need for cognition. Mine is pretty high, which works against me sometimes – I usually want explanations, it’s not so easy for me to just go with the flow and intuitively follow suggestions or hunches.)

I’m looking for solutions that could work in the real world and actually reach people in need. I think that one channel really can be social media – probably not Facebook, but other online communities which provide a tight social group with similar goals, intimate understanding of problems, and emotional support. We are herd animals and like to flock together. Now, lot of people just lurk on online forums, taking information in but not posting anything themselves. If we would advertise suitable applications among these communities, perhaps we could reach a part of the lurker population. These suitable applications should obviously be effortless to use, somewhat entertaining, and emotionally engaging. Stories are powerful persuaders, and social support is something almost everyone craves.

Not saying that trackers and self-monitoring apps don’t have their place. Of course, a part of the population benefits from habit trackers that serve to increase their awareness of their nutritional intake, activity level, sleep quality and so on. However, most applications assume that people are rational and can change their behavior based on this new self-awareness. For some people, calorie counting and tracking may just feed their obsessions about their diet and weight, when they would in reality need to become more aware of what’s going on in their mind.

I’m not a mental health expert. I’m just someone who’s experienced her share of stress, loneliness and anxiety, and also struggled with sensible eating at some point. And I would like to understand why human beings make their lives so difficult sometimes.

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