Nutrition has long been a problem in both the developed and developing world. In the developing world, the central problem is malnutrition, and accessibility of the right foods in the right quantities. In the developed world, countries are dealing with the fallout of a deep-seated obesity epidemic, and the dubious world of unregulated and poorly regulated supplements.
It’s hard to imagine an all-in-one solution that can solve these problems simultaneously; providing cheaper, more nutritious food to the developing world could eventually lead to another obesity epidemic, and providing Americans with the right tools to eat a healthy, balanced diet provides no guarantee they’ll use them.
Fortunately, the advent of IoT and connected devices has the potential to radically change our relationship with nutrition, ultimately leading to better, cheaper results for everyone.
For starters, tighter monitoring processes and new ways to produce and distribute products could lead to higher-quality, purer nutritional supplements. Ultimately, this could unfold across several stages.
First, researchers would have access to more measurement tools to evaluate the effects of nutritional supplements in the human body. Remote monitoring devices and check-ins could rigorously control experimental conditions, and lead researchers to firmer conclusions about how those supplements work.
Then, in factories and production houses, advanced sensory equipment could ensure that supplements are created with the right ingredients, with no outside interference and no corruption by the time they’re bottled. Advanced tracking and logistics equipment could also ensure they’re transported safely, and in a way that doesn’t interfere with the contents of those packages.
Fitness trackers have already become quite popular, and they’re only going to get more advanced from here. The current generation of fitness trackers allows consumers to keep track of how often they exercise, how their heart rate changes, how they sleep, and several other important metrics. In the near future, fitness trackers could take things to the next level by tracking food intake more accurately and in greater detail. Rather than relying on consumers to self-report their meals, advanced sensors could automatically “scan in” and estimate the nutritional value of foods consumers are eating. While devices like these wouldn’t necessarily curtail the problem of overeating, it would give consumers greater awareness—which is the first step of correcting the problem.
Health and Wellness Trackers
We can also soon rely on health and wellness trackers to independently monitor consumers known to be at risk for nutritional problems. For example, an individual with diabetes might have a small connected device inside their body to actively monitor their blood sugar levels, or someone at high risk for heart disease could be equipped with blood pressure and heart rate monitoring to proactively identify the possibility of a heart-related event, and monitor how dietary changes are affecting their condition. Real-time analytics would give doctors much more data to work with, and enable them to give a much more personalized healthcare experience. Smarter recommendations and more in-depth tracking would stop many nutritional problems before they start.
Health and wellness trackers could also be used in a limited capacity in the developing world. Selectively distributed devices could help nutrition researchers and/or humanitarians keep tabs on the malnutrition epidemic in key developing areas, pointing them to key areas of weakness and/or possible solutions for the discrepancies.
Recipes, Cooking, and Food Inventory
IoT is taking over the kitchen whether we’re ready for it or not. Already, consumers have access to smart refrigerators, smart ovens, and smart toasters. The culmination of technologies like these will enable consumers to have fully integrated, high-tech kitchens that keep track of which groceries you’re buying, and how much you have in stock. In the near future, these devices could even buy new replacement items as you run out of them.
More importantly, the right combination of technologies could enable consumers in the developed world to cook smarter in two ways. First, they’d have more access to nutritious, mindful recipes that allow them to choose the right ingredients and assemble the right types of dishes. Second, they’d have resources that make cooking easier, which means they’re less likely to go out to eat and indulge themselves.
Many of these solutions have disproportionately targeted problems in the developed world, so let’s turn our attention to the developing world. One of the biggest problems associated with malnutrition is an inability to create enough food for a local group of people. Better technology could empower local residents to use more precise agricultural strategies to improve yields—and produce more nutritious food for less money (and while spending less time).
For example, precision IoT devices could immediately gauge things like soil pH and micronutrient values, humidity and weather conditions, and the moisture of the soil to inform farmers the best way to proceed. Even small tweaks, over the course of thousands of acres, could result in substantially more abundant food.
Food Security and Distribution
Of course, developing countries also need to think about food security, processing, and distribution, and connected devices could help in these areas as well. Better technology could assist in harvesting, ensuring the maximum usable food products are cultivated from the collection, and higher-quality monitoring systems could ensure that food remains of the highest quality throughout processing. Better distribution methods could enable the food to travel further and less expensively, ultimately making it cheaper for a larger number of citizens.
The Availability of Information
Of course, all of these technologies depend on the availability of information. Consumers aren’t going to cook healthier meals for themselves unless they know what it means to be “healthy.” Farmers in developing countries aren’t going to maximize their crop yields unless they know the right conditions for maximizing those yields.
Fortunately, connected devices are making this information more readily available as well. Thanks to remote devices and real-time analytics, information is easier to gather than ever before, and the connective potential of the internet can make that information available all over the world. From there, it’s a matter of intelligently applying that information with the right devices to solve those pressing problems once and for all.
Of course, there are some key obstacles standing in the way of solving these nutritional dilemmas with connected devices:
- Idea generation. Before the technology can be made, it needs to be brainstormed into existence. Technological progression doesn’t happen linearly or in a predictable pattern; it unfolds in massive bursts of growth as new ideas push it forward. We rely heavily on the progress of these ideas, but can’t control when or how they arise.
- Accuracy. Much also depends on the accuracy of the information we have available to us. Obesity and related conditions like heart disease and diabetes are complex, and not yet fully understood by scientists. If we don’t have enough information about how these underlying conditions interact with each other, we may not have the right recommendations for consumers. The same holds true for reacting to environmental conditions and climate patterns when trying to improve agricultural practices in a developing country.
- Individuation. We also need to move forward in our ability to separate and make recommendations for individuals. Broad, general recommendations may make sense for the time being, but if we’re going to harness the sheer volume of data that can come from each person as a result of the devices connected to their bodies, we need to fine-tune the algorithms that make those recommendations.
- Slow adoption. Slow consumer adoption of IoT has been problematic for the entire industry, and it’s certainly going to be problematic here. If consumers don’t see or understand the benefit to using these devices, they aren’t going to use them. That, in turn, prolongs our nutritional crisis and robs us of key information we could use to devise even better devices in the future.
Connected devices and IoT do have the potential to transform how we think about nutrition, health, and wellness, both in developed and developing nations of the world. It’s only a matter of time before researchers and engineers are able to solve the key obstacles preventing them from developing.