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Health app

Appy days, for your waistline

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A PICTURE OF HEALTH: The 'social sharing' ability of the app can help doctors track their patients' progress. Cherian (left) and Vashisht

A start-up hopes its health app will help demystify Indian food and help users keep tabs on their health.

It was a big year for 25-year-old Tushar Vashisht. 2010 was a landmark year not just on account of his making a professional leap, moving from a career in investment banking to joining Nandan Nilekani's Unique Identification Authority project but it also saw him pack on the kilos in a big way: he gained 15 kg.

Coming from the US, home to a culture obsessed about nutrition and health, to India, where unwholesome food beckons from every street corner, Vashisht saw the impact show on his waistline. "In the West, gyms are cheap, there are many options for healthy food everywhere and there are a lot of ways to track calories and nutrition values via technology and apps. It was easy to be healthy, " he says.
Interestingly, Vashisht, along with Mathew Cherian, was part of a month-long Rs 100-a-day project that began in September 2011. It involved the two of them living on only Rs 100 a day for three weeks, and Rs 32 a day for the last week. They did this in response to the Planning Commission's much-criticised delineation of the urban poverty line at Rs 32 a day.

Vashisht, who was reasonably healthy and trim earlier, was bothered by his speedy weight gain. He says, "In India, it is hard to find healthy food on the go and restaurants and even home food is fairly rich in fats and carbs. Indian genes are susceptible to abdominal adiposity (belly fat) and weight gain and then hypertension and diabetes. I was on the same path. " The first part of 2011, therefore, was all about making major changes in diet and fitness. Coached by his roommate Cherian, Vashisht lost back 18 kg by year-end.

Health and fitness have been at critical to Cherian since his boarding school days. Cherian, graduate of Johns Hopkins and MIT, has spent 11 years in the US and was used to technology application to tracking calories, daily nutrition intakes (balance of protein (20 per cent)-carbohydrates (50 per cent)-fats (30 per cent)) or to find a healthfood cafê nearby - none of which were available in, or for, India.

The two decided to fill this obvious gap in a country fast adapting to technology and phone apps. Their wellness venture, www. healthifyme. com, a phone and web app, is to be launched on January 18. Sachin Shenoy, a former Google employee, is the third co-founder who joined later. It will be a comprehensive health-nutritionfitness-productivity app that will also double up as an urban user's health buddy.

"During our Rs 100-a-day (experiment) we could not afford anything, and we had never cooked Indian food. We had to stick to Indian recipes and this project ensured that my whole fitness/health mantra went for a toss. We wanted to track the whole thing but we didn't know, for instance, how many calories there are in bisibele bhaath" says Vashisht, narrowing his eyes at the deep-fried potato wedge that I was about to bite into. He recommends that I eat the salad and sandwich first, so by the end of it I won't have any appetite left for the delicious but evil potato.

The lack of such a tool during their Rs 100 experiment made the two of them build a very detailed spreadsheet model that tabulated the caloric value of Indian foods. The tables helped them draw nutritional pie charts that were later presented to the Planning Commission. "It helped us reach significant conclusions such as adding more protein to our food subsidies and to add soya, a cheap, good protein. If you see the US labour class, they are the bulkiest. Ours are bone thin because of lack of protein, leading to arthritis, diabetes, " states Vashisht.

The idea for the app crystallised further when the two spoke to bureaucrats, academics and research institutions, all of whom asked them the same question - could we get that spreadsheet data?

Cherian and Vashisht worked with data on about 900 Indian raw ingredients with the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), digitised all of it and spent several months building an Indian recipe datatbase. Says Cherian, "The US has a pretty good database. We combined USDA and NIN database and worked with more than 10, 000 ingredients and more than a million data points. The beauty of the system is that each recipe is mapped to your ingredients and your taste. Your friend's mother makes palak paneer differently from the way you do and our system captures that. NIN also has some basic recipe books with nutrition content, which we used to verify against ours. "

And their app is much more than just a listing of Indian recipes and calorie counts. The software maps a user's dietary and taste preferences to suggest healthier alternatives as well. For instance, it will not suggest chicken arabiata to a vegetarian user who loves Gujarati food. This is where technology comes in - in helping cluster user habits, likes and dislikes and in analysing lifestyles. "If you log your daily diet and preferences regularly with us for a few days, we can predict a list of what you would like. Most often the problem with generic advice is that, for instance, it will just advise a salad. But what if you don't like the taste of raw vegetables? Then it can find something else and recommend accordingly or give options to prepare it differently, " says Cherian.

But just recommendations are not enough to spur users into modifying wellentrenched lifestyles. Motivation and communication are key.

Dr Ambrish Mithal, chairman and head of department of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Medanta, the Medicity, and an advisor to the start-up, proved to be a trigger for Vashisht and Cherian's budding idea. Mithal says that the biggest lapses in maintaining a healthy, nutritious lifestyle occur because of lack of compliance and communication. "In my 25 years of dealing with the enormous challenged of obesity, diabetes, I find that patients are not really following what we are saying. There is a huge gap in compliance. You might make the best dietary plans but even the aware ones falter because of lack of motivation. Engaging patients and informing them about the nitty-gritty of diet and how it affects their health is huge gap in patient care. If one could have a mechanism to log in what they eat and we could get that information to see where they are going wrong and build in motivation in there, that would be the ultimate capability, " says Mithal.

The HealthifyMe app will have the ability to share the collected data, as Mithal suggests, with friends, nutritionists and doctors. The app, which will be launched on the Android platform and as a website. It will later come in Windows and iOS versions as well, and will be based on the "freemium" model with a free version and an advanced paid version.

Vashisht says that this will not be one of those quick-fix health apps. "Today, in our fast paced urban lifestyles, being healthy is a chore. And no one has the time to go to NIN to find out calorie counts. We want to make it fun and in the long run, make you healthy. "

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