“Back in 2015, Women’s Health recommended its readers stop counting calories because researchers found the effect that has on anxiety actually caused people to gain weight. Counting calories is only one element of nutrition data tracking. Now we are able to capture many elements of health and we keep adding more all the time and the view is ‘the more data, the better’. There’s a shiny object syndrome happening in that respect and I think it’s quite dangerous.”
These are the words of Joe Welstead, founder of the nootropic supplements startup Motion Nutrition, who started to think about this issue while tracking how the botanical sleep aid supplement in his range helped his sleep.
The entrepreneur argues there are clear occasions when health data trackers are a tool for “hugely positive change”, for example, when obtaining data on how a specific food/product/exercise is impacting a specific element of health over a certain period of time.
But he says it’s important to get the balance of data correct so as not to tip from long-term healthy change, to counterproductive daily obsession.
His company is currently encouraging consumers of the Unplug supplement to keep track of their sleep on a monthly basis and he says this is going to be beneficial to the company and his consumers.
“Tracking this level of data will be fantastic for discovering how the product influence REM sleep patterns over the long-term. This is also a great tool to allow consumers to see how their own lifestyle changes impact their sleep over time. For example, if they give up caffeine and they want to see how that impact their sleep.”
He also points out that health tracking data can be a fantastic tool for early detection of disease but he doesn’t think these are the core ways that companies and consumers currently want to use their data.
“People buy these products to improve themselves on a continuous daily basis and its this continuous data tracking that worries me.
“After keeping track of my sleep, I remember one particular morning I woke up feeling quite groggy and like I had had a really bad night’s sleep and when I looked at the app, it told me I had slept well and this actually made me feel better! Well, it can work both ways.
“When you have an app telling you how you should feel, that can’t be good for our mental health.”
Firstly, he notes that data interpretation is currently too simplistic and not intelligent enough to really understand surrounding influences.
“The data reporting on these apps is very simplistic. On my workout tracking device, if I have a big workout one day, it will tell me I should have a rest for the following two days because I’m not in optimum condition for exercise but that’s often counter-productive especially if I’m looking to lose weight, or push my exercise threshold, or improve my speed of recovery.
“Or say I eat late dinners at the weekend, plus I sleep later in the morning, then the app will tell me it was beneficial to my health stats to eat late at night. It wasn’t the late meals that benefited my stats at all, but the lack of work and the late sleep-ins.”
He points out that his other key concern with many workout focused apps is they also provide a social element, and a ‘gamified’ element.
“The social aspect and the gamification makes them addictive to some degree and when something is addictive it is no longer a helpful tool, but a controlling device.
“There are many ways it can control you. Think about if you were planning to spend the weekend with a group of friends or family and you would be celebrating a special occasions. You knew there would be lots of eating and drinking and staying up late. If you are driven by your health stats you know that all those things will have a negative impact on your stats. This could potentially either cause you a lot of anxiety, or worse, it could cause you to avoid the event altogether. Either way, it’s not helpful for our mental health.
“We know what we need to do to take care of our mental health, whether it be going for a quick run in the countryside or having a coffee with a friend, but if we are continuously given incentive to keep data ‘in the green’ then we might ignore our basic instincts for the sake of numbers.”
How to provide value
Welstead argues that health tracking devices shoot themselves in the foot when they provide continuous and detailed ‘micro-data’.
“It’s providing people with too much control, and too much data, all of the time. That’s when it becomes dominating and then it starts to become controlling.”
The other issue with this level of ‘micro-data’, Welstead believes, is that it causes the consumer to constantly re-adjust, rather than sticking to something for two or three months, turning it into a habit, and getting to see the long-term impact.
Welstead advises those in the personalised nutrition space to watch out for that drive to always provide more data. He argues that the amount of data given to the consumer needs to be carefully considered and that companies need to work out the right level of data knowledge needed to provide real value.
In five years’ time, Welstead argues that personalised nutrition will no longer be a novelty and it’s those brands offering real value, that will prosper.
“At some point, personalisation will be the norm and at that point, I worry that it will be the brands that offer the best price point and the most sleek website that win.
“Even if you have the ability to provide the consumer with a lot of data, if you are really trying to build a brand that goes beyond trends then the service has to be meaningful and it has to bring something positive to consumers’ lives.“