Meal Tracking Just Got Way Easier

Photo: Courtesy SmartPlate.
Trying to keep track of the foods you eat (even with modern meal-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal) is a pain. Recording the exact food and amount that you ate can be a complicated guessing game. But, a new device and corresponding app takes the guesswork out of tracking what you eat. It's called SmartPlate, and it's exactly what it sounds like.

The WiFi-connected plate is divided into three sections, each loaded with a 500-gram scale and a camera. The camera figures out what you ate using object recognition (similar to face recognition, but specifically looking at shape, texture, and color), and the scale figures out how much. So, say you're making dinner. You'd put your pork loin in one section, green beans in another, and rice in the third. The plate would analyze these items and display the information in its iPhone app, so you can see what portions and proportions of food you've got in real time. When you're out at a restaurant, you can just take a photo of your food using the app, for the same results.

In an in-person demo, a prototype plate and the iPhone app could accurately identify different-sized apples, slices of wheat bread versus white bread, and grilled chicken breast.

To be clear, SmartPlate isn't about the D word (dieting). Founder and CEO Anthony Ortiz calls SmartPlate "your personal nutritionist." Meal tracking isn't just something you do when you're trying to cut calories to fit into some god-awful bridesmaid's dress a month from now. People with a variety of health and medical conditions track what they eat to ensure they're getting the optimal mix of nutrients for their personal needs — or to make sure they don't overdo something their body has difficulty processing (such as sugar, for diabetics). For others, it's just a way to try to eat smarter and healthier. 

As for me, around a year ago, I started getting serious about cycling. I hired a coach and started training regularly, but realized I was feeling tired on rides even when I was well-rested. "How many carbs are you eating?" my coach asked. I had no idea. She had me track what I was eating and found I needed way more carbs in my diet — and I quite happily solved the problem. Still, even now that I'm "used" to the balance of carbs, fats, and proteins I need to feel good, I still get it wrong sometimes. Something like the SmartPlate would help fix that.

To figure out what you're eating, SmartPlate uses a database of over 8,000 household food items, 300,000 SKUs for store-bought products, and 100,000 restaurant foods. For every one of these items, SmartPlate has studied and tested hundreds of images. Knowing the difference between grilled and fried chicken is a snap, for example, because of their distinctly different textures. The app can even analyze composite items, such as rice pilaf or arroz con pollo, with a high level of accuracy — although it double-checks with you on an item if it's any less than 90% sure. If it does get something wrong, you can hop in and edit it.

While its object-recognition capabilities sound robust, the more data you feed the app, the better it will get. Ortiz said "We fed this thing a crumb; it needs millions of data sets to become more intelligent." Eventually, Ortiz also plans for the app to learn from your eating habits and start recommending healthier alternatives.

SmartPlate has some obvious caveats. With its high-tech innards, you can't run this thing in a dishwasher or stick it in a microwave. The plate also currently has some issues identifying white foods (such as fish, cauliflower, and egg whites) because of the lack of contrast against the plate's white background. But, this will improve as its cloud-based analysis handles more images. 

The SmartPlate comes in five different trims: purple, fuchsia, lime-green, teal, and gray. It is available for pre-order today for $99, and will be available for $199 when it ships in summer 2016 (so, yeah, you've got a while to prep for those meals). 


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