UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer & Jennifer Armenta, Green Impact, July 2015

Can Your Cell Phone Help You Eat Better?

Jon picJonathan Schor, a UCSF Global Food Fellow, never believed that his experience making apps would lead him into the health field. Yet during the first year of his MD/PhD training at UCSF, he was motivated to create one that could have a huge impact on helping people make healthy food choices. “I was initially interested in coding and app development and was looking for a way to combine that interest with more relevance in the health sector,” he recalled.

The UC Global Food Initiative works to identify sustainability and nutrition best practices   launched a fellowship program that sponsored two UCSF graduate students to pursue a project, Jacob Mirsky and Jonathan Schor. Last month we highlighted Jacob Mirsky’s project and this month we are focusing on Jonathan’s.

Jonathan’s interest in sustainability began in an undergrad political science class where he learned about different ways that the government encourages various forms of sustainability. “I was intrigued with the notion of nudging, which is subtly informing people about something, rather than mandating it,” he explained. As a first year medical student at UCSF he was accepted for the UC Global Food Initiative Fellowship. It was during this time that he had the inspiration and support to create a new health focused app that would spread that subtle nudge to the rest of the vast app using population.

The health app is based on a study performed by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, where it established that people are more apt to stay away from something if they see how long it takes to burn off, rather than just seeing how many calories it has. The app integrates personalized user information into an algorithm to convert calories into common physical activities. It gives you a personalized reading of how long it would take you to burn off the soda you are considering. Jonathan’s goal is for people to use the app before eating or purchasing something to see how long it would take to burn off. He hopes this will motivate people make better food choices every day.

Jonathan has had tremendous support and mentoring for this project from his two advisers, Dr. Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, Director of the ALS Center at UCSF Medical Center, and Dr. Aenor Sawyer, Associate Director of Strategic Relations in the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation. “They helped me connect with people at the UCSF Weight Management Clinic and a variety of other important groups,” he shared. “We also discussed strategies for how the app could motivate people and how I might make the app accessible for the largest audience possible.”

The app will likely not be released until next fall, but Jonathan is currently looking for focus groups to be part of the pilot program. He is also going to pitch the idea to larger companies, to see if he can incorporate his idea into existing fitness apps. The goal, though, is to keep it a free app that will help the public. “This is the first health tech app that I’ve done,” he shared. “But hopefully it will serve to catalyze many more ideas in the future!”