Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Healthspan app review

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I read this article about a “new app that identifies your nutrition gap” a little while ago. According to the article, the app (Healthspan) will make individualized supplement recommendations that you can order in-app based on your diet. Naturally, I was concerned. Ideally, we should be aiming to obtain the majority of our nutrients from food. I envisioned an app designed to push supplement sales and was concerned about the safety and accuracy of recommendations made through an app. I figured I shouldn’t knock it until I tried it though so I downloaded the free app and tried it out for a week.

Healthspan is very similar to other food and activity tracking apps in that you enter your daily food consumption and your physical activity. I’ve written about some of the pitfalls of these apps before, in particular their accuracy when it comes to calories burned and the notion of “earning” more food with exercise.

When you first download Healthspan you enter your weight, height, age, etc and it gives you your daily caloric intake to attain your goal. According to the app, for me to maintain my current weight I should consume 1143 calories a day. This is quite low and certainly lower than the number of calories I actually consume every day. Of course, I “earn” more calories through my regular exercise. Just for fun I changed my goal to see what my daily caloric allotment would be if I wanted to lose two kilos. I now have a measly 914 calories per day to work with. To put that in perspective that’s roughly the calories in a Big Mac and medium fries. A 900 calorie per day diet is generally considered to be a very low calorie diet and not recommended to be undertaken without medical supervision. The app however, provided me with no warning. It just readily lowered my daily calorie goal. Interestingly, when I further decreased my goal weight to 44 kg (which would render me significantly underweight for my height) my calorie goal remained at 914/day.

Healthspan does offer you the opportunity to obtain free supplement samples when you register. Unfortunately, they’re only available to those in the UK so I was unable to determine what the samples were. Following that, you can order supplements through the app but the description of this process given in the original article is a little off-base. The app doesn’t make recommendations based on your recorded dietary intake. Rather, you complete a questionnaire and based on your responses it recommends a multivitamin supplement. The recommendation seemed pretty generic for any woman of my age (see below). Despite this, it still concerns me that supplements are available through the app given the questionable quality and safety of many supplements available on the market.

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Aside from this, another rather significant issue I had with the app was logging my food intake. While it was quite user-friendly to enter foods and beverages I’d consumed, the selection was extremely limited and there was no way to determine ingredients in mixed dishes, nor to enter your own recipes or nutrition information. For example, I made a vegetable curry for supper one evening. There was a vegetable curry option I could add but there was no way of knowing if the ingredients were similar to the curry I ate and for anyone who’s ever had curry, you know that the recipes can vary considerably. The same held for other dishes such as smoothies, lasagna, granola, stir-fry, and so on. There was also a number of foods that I couldn’t find at all in the database and had to make my best guess at what would be most similar. Based on this, I question the ability of the app to record calorie and nutrient intake even remotely accurately.

Each day, the app gives you a score out of 100 that appears to be based on your physical activity and calorie consumption. However, participation in challenges also counts toward this score. Without participating in these optional challenges, I was never able to achieve better than a 60 on any one day. On most days, I was even lower than this. Personally, even though I wasn’t using the app to genuinely achieve any goal, I found this really discouraging. If I was actually trying to reach personal nutrition and physical activity goals I can imagine this score would be off-putting.

I know that people really like apps to track things like food and exercise but I’d give Healthspan a pass if you’re looking for an app for these things.

 

 

 

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Only the thin die young

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I’m all for looking at overweight and obesity in new ways. I absolutely believe that it’s possible to be overweight and healthy. I am, however, sick of seeing claims that being overweight is protective against death. The implication being that those of us who are “healthy” weights are actually more likely to die than those who are slightly overweight.

Yet another article came out last week touting the headline: People deemed overweight may actually have a lower risk of dying than those who are healthy, study says. The fact that we’re all going to die notwithstanding there are other significant issues with such claims.

To start, I’d like to take exception to the headline itself. Who writes these things? If they had inserted weight after “healthy” it would have made quite a difference. As it’s written it implies that “healthy” and “overweight” are two discrete mutually exclusive categories. This is not the case. It’s entirely possible to be overweight and healthy. It’s entirely possible to be “healthy” weight and unhealthy.

Now that, that’s out of the way, let’s get to the bigger problems with the study results, as covered in the news article. When people are ill, especially mortally ill, they often lose weight. As a result, when looking at death rates and weight it’s incredibly difficult to tease these issues apart. Thus, claims that being overweight protecting against death are essentially meaningless and potentially detrimental. I say detrimental, because if people are dissuaded from eating healthily and exercising regularly by the suggestion that it’s healthier for them to be overweight then it’s quite likely that their health will suffer. We also know that many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension can be better managed with weight loss, following a balanced diet, and incorporating regular physical activity. While it’s possible that being overweight is actually protective, it’s more likely that the apparent association between lower weight and death is a result of weight loss during illness.

The other significant problem with the claim that overweight is protective against death is that it doesn’t take into consideration quality of life. Many people who are overweight will be prescribed various medications to keep related conditions in-check. This may result in a longer lifespan than someone who’s “healthy” weight who, because of appearing to be in good health (as a result of the conflation of overall health and healthy weight) may go without similar treatment. The “healthy” weight individuals may lead shorter but higher quality lives without the side effects of medications (i.e. they may have shorter lifespans but longer healthspans).

To sum it up: yes, you can be healthy and overweight. You can also be unhealthy. Ditto for both for “healthy” weight. Regardless of your weight the best way to ensure that you lead the longest healthiest life possible is by taking care of yourself.

 


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What’s the benefit of exercise?

I was listening to the radio the other day and they were interviewing a Dr who conducted some research on a physical activity intervention on elementary school children. The segment was introduced as being about obesity. I can’t recall exactly what the intervention was but, naturally, it had no effect on obesity levels in the children.

I know that obesity is the big thing right now (pun totally intended) but I think that we need to stop approaching every study about exercise and nutrition as a weight loss intervention. We already know that diet generally accounts for about 80% of the weight loss equation. Therefore, logically, physical activity interventions are unlikely to have a significant effect on weight.

This focus on obesity causes us to lose focus on other benefits to be had from physical activity. Just because children didn’t lose weight from the intervention doesn’t mean that such interventions aren’t worthwhile. Benefits of physical activity and exercise include: increased healthspan, decreased risk of many chronic diseases (e.g. depression, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, osteoporosis, dementia), stronger immune system, increased energy, better quality of sleep, etc. I always say that exercise is my drug of choice.