Even though many parts of cancer treatment were miserable, there was something oddly comforting in the predictable and stable routine. For nearly 6 months, my life revolved around this 3-week rotating schedule, in which all the details were pretty much mapped out for me by my medical care team. I knew the order of all the medical procedures, what drugs I needed to take and when, and what side effects to expect on a given day of the cycle. However, when treatment ended, that routine and my medical support just vanished.
My first thought was, “NOW what do I do with myself?” I felt overwhelmed by not having a plan for what to do next or any support for my long-term recovery. I looked and felt awful after going through treatment. Given that I had just had a baby 7 months before my diagnosis, I now had pregnancy weight plus chemo weight gain to lose. However, I was left to my own devices to get my health back.
Luckily, as a health promotion professional, I knew the theory behind the healthy lifestyle habits I needed to put back into practice, but I still needed some energy to get started and some support to keep going. So I focused on healthy eating and talked a few friends into exercising along with me. We formed a private group on Facebook to help keep each other motivated and accountable, even when we couldn’t actually work out together in person. We each set goals for ourselves and reported our progress each week by posting to the group.
My system worked wonders. It took time, but the weight I gained came off (and then some, for a total of 42 pounds!). Now at 40, I can wear the clothes I wore when I was 25. Naturally, lots of people asked how I managed to get fit. The bottom line is that I had professional training in lifestyle behavior change and knew exactly what I needed to do. So how can people achieve those changes if they don’t have the same level of training?
Meanwhile… Through some mutual friends, I met the CEO of a company called Wellness Foundry. He was looking for someone with a health behavior background to help support the U.S. launch of their photo food diary app, MealLogger. I got really excited about the position when I learned about the plans they had to expand the use of MealLogger from a one-on-one coaching tool to a group-based, social networking design. What they were proposing was essentially like my Facebook exercise group but for monitoring eating habits!
My job was to test whether this new model would actually work in helping a group of people change their eating habits. I decided (with some personal bias, of course) that the first group should be breast cancer survivors. I figured that there had to be other survivors, who, like me, could use support in regaining their former fitness and vitality. Through a local online breast cancer support forum, I recruited 6 women to form the first MealLogger group, which I moderated.
On top of the challenges anyone has in losing weight, the breast cancer group members also had physical and emotional traumas to overcome as a result of their cancer battles. The peer support through MealLogger motivated group members to reach their personal nutritional goals while also giving mutual, emotional encouragement for their general recovery — a real win-win! Here’s what a couple members had to say:
“I recommend connecting to Anna’s group, if possible. I, myself, am once again excited about cooking, am exercising better self-control, and I get good tips from others’ meals and Anna’s comments. For a long time, I have felt the need for motivation and encouragement for healthy eating, and this group is now working well to get me started.”
“I very highly and warmly recommend Anna’s group. Truly a great opportunity to understand your eating habits when you see the food pictures with your own eyes. It’s a motivating way to eat well and ‘tow the line’ with your eating. It has also been a great opportunity to get comments and suggestions for my meals. Overall, a really fun and beneficial thing!”
So how does it work? Everyone takes a photo of their meal* and uploads it to MealLogger. They can add a caption and other information about the meal, which all the group members (but no one outside the group) can see. Then members can “like” and/or comment on a meal. Everyone can give and receive feedback soon after a meal is eaten, when the person still has time to make changes to their next meal. Getting “likes” and positive comments motivates people to keep working on making healthy changes.
MealLogger is not a diet plan. It is a fun and engaging way to train yourself to be mindful of what you eat. You get support from others to make small changes in your eating, little by little, until you achieve your nutrition goals. MealLogger provides the kind of support I created for myself with my group of friends, but it is even more powerful because it is visual. When you look at the photos of your meals and everyone else’s, you can really SEE the difference that healthy changes make!
Since that first group was created, we have used this model to provide support to people diagnosed with diabetes, eating disorders, schizophrenia, those recovering from bariatric surgery, and even athletes who are just looking to optimize their diet. So while breast cancer survivors were the first group users, the tool is useful for almost anyone!
You can use MealLogger to track meals, with or without added nutrition data, as well as your exercise sessions, weight, steps, sleep, and more. MealLogger also syncs with Facebook and popular fitness apps like Fitbit or Runkeeper. If you choose to work with a healthcare professional, MealLogger will connect you directly with him/her over your mobile device. Download MealLogger for free via the App store or Google play. For more information, visit www.MealLogger.com.
*Note: Using a smartphone to photograph and upload meals is the most convenient and portable way to use MealLogger and all its features. Meals can be photographed with a camera and uploaded to a computer. However, at the moment that only works with the one-on-one coaching plan and not with the group interaction feature.