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Measuring Calories on the iPhone

Trying to lose weight? There’s an app for that


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In the video above, counting calories.

Diets tend to begin when you recognize the harm of that late-night frosted doughnut routine. But it’s hard to remember what you had for breakfast, never mind dinner two nights ago.

Enter PhotoCalorie, a free iPhone app codeveloped by Larry Istrail (SAR’09,’10), a grad student studying anatomy and physiology. PhotoCalorie offers a good estimate of a food’s nutritional information, which is then stored in the user’s food journal, providing proof of what’s really gone down.

“People have told me that PhotoCalorie makes them more aware of what they’re eating,” Istrail says. “They don’t realize how many snacks they’ve had.”

To start, users snap photos of the food. Then they type in each item, separated by commas, using size descriptions for things like side dishes. The app then supplies calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Next time at the table, the user can click on the “My Food” tab to select items they have already entered.

There are other iPhone diet apps available, but PhotoCalorie’s advantage, Istrail says, is its simplicity. Other apps need as many as 28 steps, he says, to enter the information.

Istrail started work on the app last summer, while involved in nutrition research with Mark Boguski, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Boguski wanted to create an iPhone app to accompany a book he is writing. But neither Istrail nor Boguski knew the computer programming necessary.

Enter Harvard Ph.D. student Vince Fusaro (GRS’05,’09), whom they recruited to program the app. MIT grad student Adam Marcus, Istrail’s cousin, created the back-end database and Web service that calculates nutrition information.

Istrail then researched every food imaginable to fill the database, thousands of entries from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and popular restaurants like Starbucks and McDonald’s.

“Certain restaurants don’t share their information,” he says. “It took a long time.”

The app was finished at the end of December, and the group sent it to Apple for approval. Normally this process can take weeks, but they were hoping for a quick turnaround to get it out by New Year’s, a big day for optimistic dieters.

“Apple approved our app in three days,” Istrail says.

So far, PhotoCalorie has been downloaded thousands of times, from places as far away as Germany and Australia. It will stay free (for the time being) because it becomes more accurate as more people use it, according to Istrail.

The group keeps track of the foods most often searched and if certain items are more popular on specific days of the week.

“We see a huge drop-off in app use on the weekend,” Istrail adds. “We theorize that’s because people are afraid to search for how many calories are in their beer.”

Istrail is presenting PhotoCalorie at the sold-out Ignite Boston 7 conference tonight, March 4, at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development office (NERD) in Kendall Square, One Memorial Dr., Cambridge, on the Red Line. A waiting list sign-up for last-minute seating is available here. Part of Global Ignite Week, the conference features inventors showcasing their work in five minutes, using 20 slides.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu. Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter @amlaskow.


10 Comments on Measuring Calories on the iPhone

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2010 at 9:29 am

    Me gusta iphone!

  • Mike K on 03.04.2010 at 9:57 am

    Way to go, Larry!

  • kcornuelle on 03.04.2010 at 11:28 am

    crazy talk

    it’s like witchcraft, this iPhone app. I like it! Although taking pictures of all the junk I eat would start to get depressing… performance art piece, anyone?

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2010 at 5:01 pm

    RE: Witchcraft I bet if you

    RE: Witchcraft

    I bet if you used PhotoCalorie to track all the food (plus junk) you consume, you’d be more likely to opt for carrot sticks at snack time.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2010 at 9:06 pm

    Wow, three days for approval. That’s spectacular for an iPhone application. Congrats to the developers.

  • Mikey on 03.05.2010 at 6:27 am


    Ok, this is quite possibly one of the most interesting apps for the iPhone that I have seen in a very long time. I cannot wait to try it out. Thank you so much for giving us the details. casino

  • Osvaldo Del Valle on 03.16.2010 at 9:31 am

    iPhone App


    Dude, you rock man! Great job.

  • Free HTC Apps on 03.28.2010 at 9:31 am

    They are on the Android phones too!

    Not just on the iphone, but the Android Phone have similar apps too! It’s called Calories Counter.

    Here is the link: http://htcapps.com/calorie-counter-for-htc-free

  • Daniel on 11.30.2010 at 7:47 pm

    Iphone Diet?

    Great app I think because natural way to lose weight is the best. Thanks

  • Daniel on 11.30.2010 at 7:54 pm

    Great App

    I think this app is very useful because natural way is the best way how control calories.

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