How We’re Using Big Data to Help Anyone Eat Better

At Optimising Nutrition, we’re all about creating a data-driven, agnostic approach to nutrition to help you cut through the noise and empower our Optimisers to achieve their goals.  

To fuel our obsession, we’re constantly searching for data to improve the precision of our systems.   

The exciting news:  We recently added 304,384 days of data from the UN FAO/WHO dataset (i.e. from Brazil, India and other low- and middle-income countries) to our prior data set from our Optimisers and the NHANES surveys. 

We now have more than a million days of data from thirty countries to help us better understand what we need from our food to reach our goals, whatever they may be. 

We often get questions about our data sources, so we’ll give you an overview of our updated data set in this article.  

MyFitnessPal Data

Seven years ago, we started investigating the relationship between macronutrients and satiety using a publicly available dataset of 587,187 days of data from 9.9k MyFitnessPal users.   

Many people tracking with MFP are likely counting calories in hopes of losing weight.  So, this data is useful to understand the success factors that align with successful weight loss.

The MyFitnessPal data only contains macronutrients (e.g., protein, carbohydrates, and fat), not micronutrients (e.g., amino acids, vitamins, and minerals). However, for macros, we have more than a million days of data to help us understand the satiety response to protein, carbohydrates, and fat, which is what most people talk about most of the time. 

As shown in the chart below, when we combine all the macronutrient data, we see distinct bliss points for each macronutrient that align with maximum energy intake:

  • protein – 12.5%
  • fat – 38%, and  
  • carbs – 38%.

While most people focus on limiting one nutrient (e.g. low carb or low fat), it’s the combination of energy from fat and carbs with low protein that is the basic formula for ultra-processed food that so many feel ‘addicted’ to. 

Data from Optimisers

Over the past six years, we’ve collected 155,786 days of data from our community of Optimisers who record their food in Cronometer.  From there, the data is imported (via API) into Nutrient Optimiser, which is our app that guides Optimisers in improving their food and meal choices in the Macros Masterclass and Micros Masterclass. 

Much of this data is from people tracking their normal diet for the Nutrient Clarity Challenge to identify their micronutrient gaps.  Meanwhile, others use Nutrient Optimiser to guide their food choices in the Macros Masterclass and Micros Masterclass, where we guide Optimisers to dial in their satiety and diet quality.   

This detailed dataset with macros and micros helps us understand what happens when people achieve a higher concentration of nutrients per calorie in their food. 

While no dataset is perfect, and there may be some inaccuracy and underreporting, self-reported data directly applies to free-living people who track their food using the available tools and data, like MyFitnessPal and Cronometer.

NHANES Data

Six months ago, I added 159,267 days of macro and micronutrient data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)

The NHANES surveys are designed to capture the typical American’s diet. They were undertaken between 1999 and 2023 and are considered the gold standard nutritional dataset for many research studies.

While the data collected in Nutrient Optimiser tends to represent more health-conscious people trying to pack more nutrients into their diet, the NHANES data gives us an understanding of how most people eat.

Understanding what happens at lower nutrient intakes is especially important since all our analysis points to the fact that we crave a certain amount of each nutrient and eat more to get what we need.  Meanwhile, once we get above the bliss point concentration, we experience sensory-specific satiety and eat less.  

To illustrate, let’s look at sodium, which we have a strong conscious taste for.   As shown in the chart below, we eat less when our food tastes bland because it contains less sodium.  But we also eat less when it contains too much sodium because it tastes too salty. 

Our appetite is like a nutrient-sensing missile, always seeking the right blend of nutrients and energy.  Food manufacturers engineer their products to hit the bliss point nutrient concentrations to maximise sales and profit.  But now, we can use this understanding to engineer our food choices for greater satiety.  For more details, see:

FAO/WHO Global Individual Food Consumption Data Tool

Finally, the FAO/WHO Global Individual Food Consumption Data Tool is an open-access online platform that provides a harmonised dataset on what people eat, particularly in low—and middle-income countries. It includes large amounts of data from Brazil, India, and the Philippines. 

The Food and Agriculture arm of the United Nations sourced nutrition data from various large population studies to bring it together and help researchers understand the nutritional content of the food consumed worldwide. 

This FAO/WHO data is from lower and middle-income countries.  So, rather than simply understanding how Americans or nutrition enthusiasts using Nutrient Optimiser eat, this additional data gives us a broader understanding of quantifiable nutritional parameters that influence how humans eat in any context worldwide.  

Why Quality Nutrition Data Matters

Our ultimate goal is to help people move beyond named diets (e.g., Mediterranean, paleo, keto, plant-based, carnivore, etc) to understand how we respond to the nutritional properties of food in any environment. 

We can then reverse engineer the root cause of the problem (e.g. energy toxicity and poor nutrient density) to guide people to more optimal dietary choices regardless of their goals, preferences and the foods they have available where they live.

By combining data from millions of real people, we’re unlocking the secrets of what fuels our bodies.  Stay tuned for future insights on using this knowledge to make your diet work for you!

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