SINGAPORE - Not everyone you see taking photos of their food before eating it may be doing it for Instagram likes.
Some may be pre-diabetic patients from Ng Teng Fong General Hospital checking how healthy their meals are.
The hospital has teamed up with artificial intelligence (AI) experts from the National University of Singapore (NUS) to develop a new application for people diagnosed with pre-diabetes.
The JurongHealth Food Log (JHFoodLg) app uses AI to match uploaded photos of food to a database of over 200 common local dishes, including nasi padang, laksa, and char siew rice.
It also taps nutrition data from the Health Promotion Board, JurongHealth Campus, as well as the Australian Food and Nutrient Database.
Professor Ooi Beng Chin, from the school of computing at NUS, said: "The system learns dynamically whenever a new photo is uploaded, so it will get even better at recognizing the food over time."
The app also allows users who are part of the hospital's Lifestyle Intervention (Liven) programme to set weight-loss goals, exercise targets and hold live chats with the hospital's dietitians and physiotherapists, who monitor the patients' progress.
Figures from 2017 show that more than 400,000 Singaporeans have diabetes, while another 430,000 have pre-diabetes and are at risk of developing diabetes.
The hospital's principal dietitian Jesslyn Chong said patients with pre-diabetes can reverse it by losing 5 to 7 percent of their body weight.
Results from a six-month study have been promising.
Ms Chong said 20 patients took part in the study last year where they used the app while taking part in the Liven programme.
Almost all of them experienced weight loss of between 4 to 5 percent of their initial body weight.
"Behavioural changes like diet or exercise have to be made into lifestyle habits. Our programme helps our participants set realistic health goals such as losing half a kg of weight per week or cutting down on fried food.
"The app also helps to remind them of their goals and motivate them," she said.
Users track their meals through a "food diary" feature which records nutrition information such as calories, fat, carbohydrate, and sugar content.
They can also manually adjust the recorded portion sizes if they have eaten more or less than a standard serving. The total daily calories consumed and burned are displayed on the app's dashboard.
Exercise activity data from fitness trackers can also be synchronized with the app.
An earlier version, simply called Food Log, was released for Android and iOS in early 2017 without a hospital's involvement. This version only had the food database features.
Prof Ooi, who is also the director of the Smart Systems Institute at NUS, realized that the app could be useful for patients and has since worked with Ng Teng Fong General Hospital to incorporate other requested features, such as fitness tracking and live chat.
This new version was completed at the end of 2017.
The hospital then worked with the 20 patients enrolled in its Liven programme over six months, starting in mid-2018.
Many of the patients were overweight or borderline overweight before enrolling in the programme.
Dietitians and physiotherapists at the hospital monitored the patients' progress and gave them weekly feedback via scheduled live chat sessions in the app.
Ms Chong said: "Patients who develop pre-diabetes are often told that they need to exercise and cut down on certain foods so they won't develop diabetes.
"But even if they go home motivated and wanting to change their lifestyles, most of them are not successful."
She said many patients reported they "have no time" to exercise or do not know how to start. Others said they tried to change their diets but still could not lose weight.
But the app, combined with the Liven programme, helped many shed weight.
Besides sharing their progress with their healthcare providers, users can also share photos on the app's community page, which is modeled after Instagram, and share, like and comment on each other's posts.
The app is currently available only to participants in the hospital’s Liven programme, but the hospital plans to roll it out to the general public in future.
But only patients in the programme will have access to the health coaching provided by the hospital’s dietitians and physiotherapists. The public will be able to use the food diary and fitness tracking features when the app is made available.
Meanwhile, the study group will be expanded to a total of 140 participants, said the hospital’s director of allied health and community operations Lee Hee Hoon.
The research programme is expected to be completed in about six months.
Ms Lee said: "We believe that everyone can benefit from this app for self-monitoring, not just people with pre-diabetes.
"Other chronic diseases can also be controlled primarily through lifestyle and behavioral changes.
"The user's personal values and sense of purpose have to anchor and sustain those changes."