According to the Center for Disease Control (and Prevention), more than 422 million people around the world are suffering from diabetes. It has become a growing global epidemic. Here in the United States, it’s believed that 1 in 3 Americans has some form of pre-diabetes.
Diabetes is a complex affliction to understand, let alone to live with and manage. If left uncontrolled, this disease can have devastating effects leading to blindness, heart disease, amputation of limbs, strokes, and even death.
But with advances in technology, type II diabetes (the most common form in the U.S.) is becoming easier to control and manage. While there is no cure for diabetes, this type can be reversed with medication, stringent meal planning, nutritional counseling, exercise, and weight loss.
For Principal Designer Pavithra Counsell, addressing the many gaps between care and education for people living with diabetes is essential to proper treatment of the “whole patient.” The right tool would address the systemic nature of the disease along with the incredible need for highly individualized, person-centered care. With that in mind, Pavithra designed GlyCal, a concept mobile app with user-friendly and diabetes-specific nutritional counseling tools to help patients take control of their disease.
At Cantina, we strive to create digital products and services that seamlessly fit into people’s lives. What inspired you to build this app?
My inspiration came from my personal experiences with Type II diabetes within my immediate family. This familiarity has caused me over the years to think about what my family has lacked in treatment and access to education regarding their own care. Perhaps the worst part of having diabetes is the feeling that you can’t have any of the foods you love, especially if they are not very “healthy”. For someone who is diabetic, eating the wrong carbs or too many sweets, sugary drinks, etc., can literally ruin their day or week by spiking or dropping blood sugars to dangerous levels. These extreme dietary restrictions are, in some ways, even worse than diabetes itself. Every time you think of eating, you’re remembering that you have a disease. It’s a debilitating feeling that I don’t wish upon anyone. GlyCal is a tool I hoped would help them feel more in control of their disease management by enabling them to personalize their care.
Since there is no cure for diabetes, watching what, when and how you eat is a substantial part of managing the disease. GlyCal is an app that could allow patients to feel empowered by taking control of their diet, perhaps even live a little. For example, what if once a week you can have that rice you’ve craved for so long while making sure you also eat 20 grams of protein with it? Helping mitigate the less healthy foods that might satisfy your cravings with protein, fiber, and healthy fats can help people craft meals that might make them feel more “normal.” Isn’t that what anyone with a disease wants? To feel “normal” again?
I hope GlyCal will inspire people to feel empowered and a little less burdened by the magnitude of their diagnosis.
Is there anything out there that is attempting to solve this problem?
While its very easy to find the glycemic index of individual ingredients online, there are no tools to calculate the glycemic index of an entire meal. However, the blood sugar response to a high-glycemic ingredient can be mitigated by combining the food with protein, fiber, and fat. GlyCal aims to bridge this gap by potentially allowing patients to have “cheat items” when paired with healthier elements like protein powders, avocados, vegetables, nuts, and or eggs.
What was the most pressing issue or challenge you wanted to address with this project?
Personal-empowerment is the true goal. Patients feel helpless, especially when they feel like they can’t eat anything they used to love. My aspirations are to put the feeling of control back into the hands of the patients by building mindfulness and awareness around diabetes-specific nutrition.
What design aspects of your app overcome some of the obstacles you have outlined?
You can think of GlyCal as a nutritional counseling tool with a number of helpful diabetes-specific features: A “My Fitness Pal”-type experience for calculating the glycemic index of a full meal, versus the individual ingredients. It allows patients to see in real time the effects of fat, protein, and fiber on the glycemic index of their aggregate meal by utilizing machine learning to estimate a patient’s peak rise in response to a certain glycemic index level over time. It also includes general nutritional information for dietary education and calorie counting; giving patients enough nutritional info to find the right mix of medication and dieting to slow the progression of, or even reverse, their diabetes.
What experiences or insights informed your design approach?
To accomplish the aforementioned features I utilized a pie chart, helping users visualize each macronutrient as parts of a whole meal. The chart helps users understand how these ratios affect the glycemic index of their meal. The user will learn over time to look for the right macronutrient ratio in their meals, and through machine learning, it will cater to their personal preferences and needs. The charts are extremely customizable, allowing users to click and drag segments of the pie chart to experience different macronutrient ratios, along with providing general nutritional information with text links. It’s all about making the user feel at ease with the process of managing their disease.
What will be some initial challenges the concept could face at launch?
An early challenge would be loading an encyclopedia-like table of glycemic indices of ingredients into the app. While there are several national and international organizations with a wealth of data dedicated to diabetic-nutritional counseling, additional research would be needed to develop algorithms to calculate the precise glycemic index of a complete meal. Additional research would also be required to develop a machine learning algorithm to personalize and optimize the app for each individual user.
Give it a try with this interactive prototype of Gylcal.
If you’re interested in learning more about GlyCal or have a similar project you’d like to talk about, please send us an email.