How many calories are you eating when you order the Lumberjack Special at Denny’s or the Dieter’s Delight at the local diner? Or for that matter, how much are you adding to your daily total when you stop by mom’s house for a Sunday pot roast dinner?
Rich Weiss, founder of Viocare, a health technology company on Witherspoon Street, has reeled in a $3.6 million federal grant to get at the answers. Along with the Sarnoff Corporation, he is well on his way to developing a camera that will automatically take 3D shots of any meal from three angles. The information is sent to a computer that is capable of separating the elements on a plate — the eggs, sausage, toast, and banana slices — and calculating the volume, and therefore the calories, in each.
The data will be used in a number of ways, the most basic being: What are people really eating? Research subjects are notoriously bad at estimating just how much they are actually taking in, as any spouse or friend of a dieter can attest. “How can I be hungry an hour after a big lunch?” the dieter will invariably say in response to questioning. “What big lunch! I only had a little sandwich and a handful of chips.”
“Even nutritionists are not much better at accurately reporting what they eat,” says Weiss.
But getting a true picture is important at a time when diseases ranging from cancer to heart failure to diabetes are increasingly being blamed on poor diet, and when the cost of treating these diseases is building as fast as the waistline of a all-you-can-eat buffet regular.
Weiss believes that developing a device that allows people to quickly, easily — and accurately — record what they are eating as they go through their busy days is a good way to start to understand why obesity and related ills are on the rise. There are similar devices, he says, but his is different in that it incorporates voice recognition so that a user can be asked in real time whether his coffee is decaf or regular, whether the spread on his bread is butter or margarine, and if it is topped by regular jam, or sugar free.
He is proud of the grant he has obtained to develop such a device, most of which will be used for labor. “There were 40 grants awarded for a total of $60 million,” he says. “Ours was the only one that went to a for-profit.” All of the grants, under a National Institutes for Health Genes, Environment and Health Initiative, focus on technology. “Three or four years ago, I wrote a white paper on how we could create a $50 device to track calories,” he says. “They knew I had the background.”
Weiss says that the camera he and Sarnoff are developing being used in studies and also in corporate wellness programs. At this point, he has no plans to market directly to consumers.
As important as this latest grant is, it is only one of Viocare’s projects. The company is targeting consumers directly through its Princeton Living Well website (http://princetonlivingwell.com). Unveiled to businesses one year ago, and to consumers in April, it seeks to cut down the incidence of diabetes in the greater Princeton area by getting healthcare institutions, businesses, and residents together in a program that rewards healthy habits, including exercise, smart food choices, and attendance at educational seminars (U.S. 1, June 20, 2007).
Princeton Living Well has recruited more than 50 businesses, each of which offers rewards as residents pile up points. Record your weight every day and activity every day and you get 100 points a day, join the website and you get 2,500 points, post a new message on the website’s forum and you get 100 points. Rewards include, for example, a free yoga session at the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health, $10 off a $50 order at Sotto Restaurant, a $5 Record Exchange gift card, gift certificates at the Blue Point Grill, and a free swim lesson at CanDo Fitness.
Right now Princeton Living Well is looking for volunteers, age 18 to 80, to participate in a summer study on eating and activity habits. Each will be given a small honorarium and a free pedometer and heart rate monitor.
A year ago, the website, funded by an NIH grant, was seen as ripe for relatively quick franchising. Now Weiss is looking at it as a way to demonstrate to the NIH that many groups within a community will come together to support one another in a quest for better health.
“Building the infrastructure was harder than we thought it would be,” says Weiss. “Keeping track of points, making sure we have addresses to which we can mail reward coupons, that sort of thing.”
The website got off to a slow start, but it is gaining traction. Forums, once silent, are now bristling with conversation. More people are signing up, and more businesses are offering them rewards.
All of this makes Weiss, whose company, founded in 1993, has grown to 12 employees, very, very busy. How does he do it all? “I don’t sleep much,” the genial researcher replies with a laugh. On a more serious note, he says that he has cut back on biking, his favorite sport. But he doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.
“I used to think that if I were going to go on a bike ride, it had to be for at least an hour,” he says. “Now I fit in 10 or 15 minutes when I can. I bike the two-and-a-half miles to work, I take the stairs rather than the elevator, I walk around at lunch time.” Too busy to pack a lunch, he has scoped out healthy choices in downtown Princeton, and frequently enjoys soup or salad at Olive’s, Tico’s, or the Soupman. He points out that meals with lots to them — a big salad, or a bowl of vegetable-filled soup — keep hunger at bay and promote a feeling a fullness for longer than a smaller, more calorie-dense meal.
“I don’t deprive myself,” he says. “I love dark chocolate, and when I want some, I eat a little bit.” He also has his (healthy) addictions. “I keep a bowl of roasted almonds from the Bucks County Coffee shop on my desk,” he says. “They are so good. I have to replenish the bowl once a week.”
Working on his own health, Weiss’ work — and his passion — is using technology to boost the health of his community.
Viocare Technologies Inc./Princeton Multimedia Technologies, 145 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08542; 609-497-4600; fax, 609-497-0660. Rick Weiss, president. www.viocare.com.