If you're snacking too much, overloading on salt or not eating enough fiber, only your computer may know for sure. After all, if a computer can balance your checkbook, it can balance your diet.
It can also do a whole range of food-related tasks, from arranging your shopping list according to the aisles in the supermarket to helping you choose recipes around what's left over in the refrigerator to demonstrating proper place settings.
Computers, however, have yet to take over the average kitchen. For now, most applications of computers to food are in public settings, institutional environments. And it is happening in the field of nutrition, particularly in diet analysis, where the tedious task of translating what you eat into what you should be eating is being relegated to the quick mind of a computer.
That mind is only as sharp as the person who wrote the software package, only as accurate as the user is in recalling food ingested or exercise performed. The old computerese adage "garbage in, garbage out" applies to nutrition software as well.
Computers equipped with nutrition software are touring shopping malls and health fairs and are becoming permanent fixtures in diet clinics, hospitals, extension services and universities. With names like "Pig-Out," "The Food Processor, "Grab a Byte," they are being used to analyze specific recipes, special diets or restaurant menus. With costs from $10 on up, they vary by size, source and quality of data base, storing information on anywhere from 350 to 3,500 foods, or any number of nutrients.
A University of Massachusetts food science professor has devised a program that whistles if you have the proper percentage of body fat. "Eating Machine," a program written by Muse Software in Baltimore displays a smile on the computer screen if your nutrient intake is within the RDA range, a frown if you are above the range in calories or sodium.
Compucal, put out by Personal Computer Industries, is a computerized diet program and kitchen scale. Put your piece of chicken on the scale, it tells you the weight, number of calories, carbohydrates, protein, sodium and so on. Its memory can keep a running total of the calories in a dish as you prepare it.
Nutrition software is being used in all kinds of situations:
*For fitness and sports conditioning. Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49's and the Los Angeles Rams, as well as the Olympic Training Center, are using nutrition/fitness software to optimize an athlete's diet and performance. (Redskins head trainer Bubba Tyer said the team tried a diet analysis program at one time, but it was "hard for us to control their diets.")
According to the Browns' computer director, George Hoffman, each player's optimum percentage of body fat is determined according to his position (e.g. a defensive lineman should have 12 to 13 percent body fat, defensive backs and running backs should have 7 to 8 percent body fat). That information, plus the player's food intake, activity level, age and sex (the Browns are all males, but the program is designed for both sexes) is entered into the computer, which spits back diet recommendations.
*For target populations. Specialized software programs have been written to help analyze the diets of diabetics, heart patients, infants and the elderly. The Bothin Burn Center at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco assesses the nutritional status of burn patients by computer. And the University of Idaho has written a software package being purchased by Mormons that provides a nutrient analysis, based on the family's needs, of foods stored in the home.
*For weight loss. A New York Medical Center team developed behavior modification software. Among the questions: You find yourself at home on a Friday night with nothing to do to pass the time. Would you go to the refrigerator for something exciting to eat? (1) Yes, (2) No, (3) Maybe.
Despite its increasing usage, nutrition software is still a field in its infancy, with plenty of kinks to iron out in programs, plenty of programs that overlap the purposes of others and some that contain superfluous information. And much of it is far too technical or extensive to be used by a general population.
Nutrition software is "so green right now," says Sara Gill, a registered dietitian and managing editor of The Journal of Dietetic Software, a publication begun to help gather information about the explosion of products on the market. Even Gill, who thus far lists more than 300 nutrition software programs in the quarterly journal, says it's "hard to know what's out there."
In addition, nutrition professionals recognize the potential hazards of nutrition analysis software. They fear that users will take the recommendations of the computer as gospel -- especially since an electronic screen can create the impression of certainty -- and turn to inappropriate diet regimens without having the data properly interpreted. It's a "buyers-beware market right now," says Gill.
Some programs, for example, will tell users that if they are consuming a certain number of calories per day, they will lose weight at a certain rate per week. "But that doesn't always happen," says Stella Yu, a registered dietitian at Hood College. Each person's metabolism is different, and there are a host of other factors that may make an individual lose weight at a different rate than another.
Yu also questions programs that analyze nutrient intake to the decimal point, given the variability in cooking preparation and the approximations of the nutrient data bases.
And one of the biggest problems, says Marilyn Swanson, a registered dietitian at the University of Idaho who has written several software packages, is that people have difficulties estimating portion sizes when they enter their food recall into a computer. (Swanson said she has heard that overweight people underestimate portion sizes and underweight people overestimate portion sizes.)
Also, Swanson says, people may not understand the appropriate uses of the RDA. If a printout says "you're getting 65 percent of the RDA of calcium," for instance, that doesn't necessarily mean you should "run out and buy calcium pills," she says.
This is a concern echoed by Yu, in a jointly authored article in The Journal of Nutrition Education, in which she warns that we may be entering a stage of "nutrition quackery" in which irresponsible entrepreneurs may use nutrition software to "document" the need for their services or products.
What responsible nutrition software can provide, professionals agree, is at least an increased awareness of what you're eating. They can be useful "in reminding you, in sensitizing you," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and author of a software program called Nutri-Bytes.
But surprisingly, nutrition software hasn't populated the home computer market, as interviews with local computer stores, distributors and software executives indicate. It "really is a market that has not been tapped," says Ken Wash, executive director of the Software Publishers Association. "A lot of sillier ideas have gained acceptance in the market," added Wash, citing a car repair program.
The reason nutrition software hasn't caught on yet for home users, according to Rosemary Arrigo, sales manager for the software wholesaler Software Distribution Services in Buffalo, is that manufacturers of such programs are not marketing them enough. (In the software business, says Arrigo, there is a direct correlation between the amount of money spent for advertising and the amount of software sold.)
But, says Darwin Dennison, author of the nutrition software program The DINE System, it would cost his company from $50,000 to $100,000 to repackage and reformat the program to target the consumer market, a market that is not clearly defined at this point. Dennison did say that about 10 percent of the company's sales are to personal computer users (up from 1 percent two years ago), but that that figure has been reached without any advertising.
The types of software that her sales force is receiving heavy orders for, says Arrigo, at least in New York City, are for those that store and retrieve recipes. The Micro Cookbook, said Arrigo, is the biggest seller.
But such recipe files have been considered "a neat idea that fails in execution" by many critics who point out their pointlessness as well as their impracticalities.
"How many people have a terminal in their kitchen?" questioned Wash, who added that recipe files seem to have been created as a "sop to computer widows" who spend long hours watching their husbands putter at the family computer. (In fact, a recent USA Today poll of 1,242 people found that men are almost three times more likely than women to be the major user of home computers.)
Jay Butler, president of Virtual Combinatics, the software company that makes The Micro Cookbook, said although "the industry says this is a stupid application," the company sells about 20,000 packages a year and is regularly in the top five on a few best-selling software lists. And almost 40 percent of its users are men, Butler said.
In the meantime, what can we see in our future for food and nutrition software? Picture some of these not-so-far-fetched scenarios; the technology already exists:
*You want to prepare a dinner that takes less than a hour, won't give your mother-in-law indigestion and uses the chicken, tomatoes and garlic you have in your refrigerator. Ethel, your talking computer, suggests chicken enchiladas, chicken cacciatore and chicken marengo. You give her the go ahead with the marengo and she takes you through the recipe step-by-step as you prepare it.
*Nutrition software sold like fad diet books. "Lose 10 pounds in 2 days," with this computer disc.
*An on-line recipe and nutrition network where users could access new recipes and the latest research on vitamins or minerals, for instance.
*Software cookbooks that include the pictures of each dish. Users could call up the category of "Chinese meatless dishes," for example, and choose from an array.
*Appliances that think. There are already microwave ovens that can calculate the weight and cooking time of an item by just knowing what the food is. And soon appliances may be talking to each other; the dishwasher, for instance, could tell the hot water heater it's going to need so many gallons for so many minutes.