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If you’re a seasoned dieter, you’re probably pretty skilled when it comes to counting. In your efforts to keep your weight under control, you’ve probably counted everything from calories to carbs, and from fat grams to fluids. Snap on a pedometer, and you’re counting how many steps you take every day. If you feel like you’ve run out of things to count, rest assured. Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina have developed the tool for you—enter the bite counter.
Just as a pedometer records the specific motion that’s related to walking, the bite counter is a small device worn on the wrist, like a wristwatch, that’s designed to pick up the specific movements involved when you transfer foods from hand to mouth. Like a pedometer that counts your daily steps, the bite counter records the total number of bites you take over the course of the day.
The researchers who developed it (a psychologist and a computer engineer) say that the bite counter is about 90% accurate in counting only the specific and characteristic wrist motions related to eating. This motion, for the most part, can be distinguished from other motions, like the ones you make when you talk with your hands. If you know how many bites you typically take per day and want to cut back, you can set a bite limit. Your trusty bite counter will sound an alarm if you exceed your daily bite count.
To me, the bite counter brings up more questions than answers. How do you account for the 300 calories of liquids the typical American slurps down every day? What about people who eat with both hands—a burger in one, and fries in the other? I’ll bet bite counts for sandwiches are off. Who puts a sandwich down between bites? And how do you account for the size of the fork or spoon? Can you beat the system by using bigger utensils?
Something else the bite counter doesn’t do is track calories—yet. But the scientists say they are working on a formula, similar to those used on exercise equipment, to provide an estimate for how many calories you’re eating. While they recognize that foods vary in terms of their ‘calories per bite,’ the researchers have found that in a typical meal, bites average between 20 and 25 calories. But that assumes that people are eating pretty much the same foods day in and day out. And relying on calorie averages just won’t be accurate enough for most people.
The bite counter reminds me of another device that was briefly popular about 20 years ago—a red light-green light fork that was meant to control the rate of eating. Two little dots of light on the fork’s handle alternated on and off: you ate while the light was green and stopped when it was red. But the device never really took off. It was said that people weren’t losing any weight because when the light was green, they were simply shoveling the food in as fast as they could.
Some tools are great. The feedback you get from a pedometer, for example, is useful—it helps you establish goals to incrementally ramp up your activity. Counting calories keeps you on track and helps you spend your calories wisely to get the most nutritional bang for your calorie buck.
A bite counter may help you eat less, but if you don’t make improvements in the quality of your diet, then you’re missing the point. It’s not just how many bites you take in—what really matters is what foods are sitting in that spoon or at the end of that fork. The one thing a bite counter can’t do is to make the right food choices for you. You have to count on yourself to do that.