MyFitnessPal Starts Tracking Steps To Grow The World's Largest Nutrition Database

May 1 2014, 9:16am CDT | by

Recent hype about healthcare tech has been over wearable fitness trackers, but an arguably more impactful way to be healthy and lose weight is to track eating habits, something you can already do with a smartphone alone. MyFitnessPal, one of the first mobile apps to track food intake, is set to broaden its service to track activity too, marking a direct challenge to the software provided by wearable devices like Fitbit and Jawbone and an attempt to create one of the first, comprehensive windows into a person’s health.

MyFitnessPal says it will track fitness activity through a feature called Steps, and while the feature will sync with data that comes in from wearable devices like the Fitbit and Jawbone UP, it will also track steps directly via the iPhone 5S. The app is taking advantage of the phone’s M7 chip, which is powerful and efficient enough to constantly track activity without draining the phone’s battery.

MyFitnessPal’s founder and CEO Mike Lee, who wears a black Fitbit Flex on his wrist, hopes to make activity tracking on his app work with other smartphones too. He notes the obvious overlap of his app with Fitbit’s, which also tracks nutrition intake, but adds that “a lot of people prefer ours. Our users want to be able to see all that data inside of our app.”

Lee has spent the last last nine years building up an enormous amount of data based on what his more-than 50 million registered users contribute to the app. “We have the largest database that’s ever existed of what people eat,” says Lee. “There’s never been something like this.”

Health care providers and researchers have naturally come knocking at his door in a bid to gain access to that data, but Lee claims to be “very protective” of it and is holding back for now. While other fitness apps have open APIs for data sharing, MyFitnessPal’s is private and requires a formal partnership for that data to be unlocked.

There’s an argument that as smartphones develop more sophisticated sensors like the Samsung Galaxy S5’s finger-print sensor and heart rate monitor, they’ll send wearable fitness trackers like the Fitbit towards obsolescence. Smartphones did the same for in-car navigation, after all, following the short-lived popularity of TomToms and Garmins.

Lee says it’s too early to make a bet on form factors either way, since people don’t always have their phones on their bodies, and wearables have the advantage of sensors that could, increasingly, measure things like heartbeat and sweat content at all times.

“The amount of data you have available to you is going to grow exponentially,” he adds. “What’s exciting is what you can do with that data in the future.”

Over time, Lee hopes to find a spot for his service in the healthcare space. Fitness apps and wearable devices generally fit into the so-called consumerization of health care trend, where services hope to take a bite out of the $2.3 trillion health care industry and pay a role in that long span of time between doctor’s visits.

Lee sees his service as an “incredibly powerful” way to bridge the data gap between consumers and their health care providers. A future service that ties in with healthcare “would have to be permission based,” he adds, but such features are already being mapped out and MyFitnessPal has an API that allows users to connect to certain healthcare providers. “We’d be interested in adding a medical partner,” he says.

That could be one potential route to making money. For now, MyFitnessPal derives revenue entirely from selling ad space on its app with the help of mobile ad networks. The startup, which was bootstrapped for most of its life until an $18 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins last year, was actually profitable for a while, Lee says. However investments in hiring for roles like data science to boost its analytics offerings, have pushed it into the red more recently.

Lee started MyFitnessPal nine years ago as a desktop app when he and his then-fiancee were trying to shed a few pounds ahead of their beach wedding. When his trainer told him to start counting his calories on paper, Lee created a web application that allowed him to do it on a computer instead. The service became an iPhone app in early 2009.

Today it’s one of several free, weight-loss apps that have challenged paid-for dieting stalwarts like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, both of whom have suffered share drops over the last year or so as a result.

Many of these free apps, like MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper and Runtastic, cross reference data with one another via open APIs to help them scale up. Over time though, some may choose to stop sharing data in a bid to create single platforms that users go to for a holistic view of their health and activity. This seems to be the road MyFitnessPal is going down with its private API and now, the inclusion of steps tracking.

The app’s announcement is also interestingly timed, coming a day after Facebook unveiled the new behind-the-scenes network that connects mobile apps via a user’s Facebook ID. With it, users will soon be able to log into apps “anonymously.”

The idea is that this will encourage more people to use Facebook as an identifier between third-party services.

For an app like MyFitnessPal which may eventually partner up with healthcare providers, a ubiquitous ID system like Facebook’s could make that easier. But Facebook and MyFitnessPal will need to gain scale, and more importantly the trust, of users to take that next step.


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