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Wearable snake oil: The search for automatic calorie-intake tracking in fit-tech wristbands

Jon Phillips | March 25, 2014
It's the 'holy grail' of activity-tracking wristbands, but critics say no defensible technology allows activity-tracking wristbands to automatically tell us how many calories are in the food we eat.

"For determine glucose, we using impedance sensor," Shipitsin told me in an email. "We measuring impedance part of body tissue below the contact several time in a minute at the several frequencies. By measuring impedance, we don't measure glucose directly, we measuring liquids in and out of cells. When glucose come to blood starting process of substitution water in cells to glucose (with insulin like a key). Constantly measuring impedance give as understanding of dynamics of liquids and we can calculate dynamics of glucose."

I've quoted Shipitsin's email directly, without any editing for grammar, because his claims are material to the validation of Healbe's science, and I don't want to miscast anything he's shared for the public record. But, Moscow, we have a problem: Ries Robinson, who's in the small community of experts who study the non-invasive measurement of blood glucose, says it's scientifically untenable to deduce intracellular glucose concentration from an impedance sensor measuring fluid levels in tissue.

"Impedance has been used historically to look at the overall water content in the body," Robinson says. "But that's a very difficult measurement, and has largely been unsuccessful commercially. You might be able to get the glucose volume, but you'd be lacking any information on glucose concentration... The fact that there's no peer review publication on the ability to measure glucose in the body with impedance is an enormous red flag."

IMAGE: HEALBE. Behold: Gobe's app platform.

Moreover, Robinson says, intracellular glucose alone could never be a useful indicator of how many calories we've consumed. First, he says, we eat too many foods that are rich in fats and proteins--steak, fried fish, ice cream and guacamole, to name just a few. All these tasty treats are high in calories, but wouldn't set off the glucose-based calorie measurement that Healbe says is the cornerstone of its product.

Second, even if we ate an all-glucose diet--just sugars and carbs--much of the glucose that we stuffed into our mouths would be absorbed throughout the body before hitting the cells underneath our wrists. This fact alone impugns glucose monitoring as a defensible tool for calorie intake tracking.

"To say that I'm going to measure glucose in the cell, and it's going to allow me to magically understand food intake, it means all these other variables are perfectly constant," Robinson says. "That's not how the body works... As soon the glucose comes in, it's either stored as glycogen or mitochondria. This is an automated reaction. It's all in equilibrium--glucose comes in, and it gets broken down right away. The intracellular glucose concentration is largely constant, and incredibly low. There's really no good way to measure intracellular glucose concentration."


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