IBM’s Eat-to-Earn System Rewards Employees For Eating Right

Around the same time you were pondering a resolution to eat better in the new year, IBM was patenting an idea that might make that easier.

Long known for their incentive and technology-based approach to improving employees’ health as well as a value-based benefit approach to health care, IBM has developed a solution that guides people to better food choices based on their personal health, and then rewards them when they “do the right thing.”

An NBC Bay Area article summarizes how the system works:

…a computer system that can assign a health factor to a food item (such as an apple or a Twinkie) based on what the system knows about you, your health history, your exercise history and what you like to eat. For example, maybe you decide to have an apple and a Twinkie for lunch at work. You get some reward points for the apple, plus bonus points because the system notices that you haven’t been eating enough fruit recently. You don’t get anything for the Twinkie, and then according to the patent, all your points get revoked when the system somehow notices that you tried to ditch the apple in the trash can without eating it. We don’t know how IBM would know, but apparently they’d know.”

Some challenges Eat-to-Earn might address

I learned about the system via an email update from AHIP Wellness SmartBrief and a tweet from Paul Hebert. Paul asked what I thought about the system. There’s not a lot of detail in the publicly available information. Going from the cited articles, however, I think this system has potential as a way to passively guide people to food choices that match their personal profile risk. And for IBM, I imagine it has further potential as a product employers and others will purchase.

If you consider some of our current challenges with healthy eating and wellness efforts, this patent could address the following;

  • Help us pick the best foods for us. Because of how the system’s designed, it benefits those trying to lose or maintain weight and those trying to live with a chronic illness. Today, those trying to drop pounds rely on specious diets, prepackaged foods and, increasingly, health apps to simplify finding and sticking to healthier choices, while those living with a newly identified chronic condition, health risk or disease struggle to reconstruct their eating habits according to specific dietary limitations. Personalized guidance such as what’s offered here can be invaluable, particularly as it’s driven by our individual health profile and food likes and dislikes.
  • Make the best choice a more immediately gratifying one. We choose the Double Down over the turkey on whole wheat because the Double Down tastes better and the effect of the Double Down, besides a little heartburn and sluggishness, isn’t visible for years. Earning immediate incentives for healthier choices may counteract this inclination.
  • Turn our health data into useful information. One of the challenges with health risk assessments is that they’re personalized, but only to a degree. They applaud healthy behaviors, call out risk factors and cite actions to take to reduce any risk. They’re a terrific tool for starting a conversation with your doctor, but they’re limited in their ability to provide ongoing insight or instruction. If this system takes health risk assessment data and health records and turns both into a personalized, interactive resource center and information source, it’ll make them dynamic tools that tell us a story about our health and improve the value of health risk assessments.

Privacy concerns if system becomes employment requirement

Another article on the IBM approach says, “This is a win-win situation for IBM. They claim the investment that companies can implement turn key [SIC], and employees all around can work towards getting in good physical shape.” Presumably, the solution involves a computerized payment system built by IBM and ties into their ongoing interest in improving health care.

It’s hard to tell whether this is designed for in-house corporate cafeteria use or more broadly. I figure IBM’s currently piloting or will pilot this with its workforce and we’ll eventually see results published, maybe in a medical journal, as they’ve done in the past with their wellness rebate programs. Following that, perhaps we’ll see other employers offer this system — and hospitals and other venues too?

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When Paul Hebert asked me my opinion about the system, he shared his. He was concerned about the privacy intrusion, particularly if use of this system was an employment requirement.

We’re seeing a rise in no-hire tobacco policies and in companies considering a move to outcomes-based wellness, but I don’t see employers ready to move to this level of influence. What are your thoughts?

Fran Melmed will be speaking on “The Second-Generation Workplace Wellness Program” at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

This was originally published on Fran Melmed’s free-range communication blog.


5 Comments on “IBM’s Eat-to-Earn System Rewards Employees For Eating Right

  1. Medical experts disagree on what is and is not healthy. Notice the recommendations for diabetics that change every few years from restricting fats to restricting carbohydrates and back. How can a company guarantee that its Big Brother nutrition system really knows better than the individual what is right for him?  Couldn’t companies leave people’s lunches alone and focus on improving stress-inducing processes and starting anti-bullying campaigns? Those efforts could reduce health costs, improve the bottom line, and be much more fitting with an employer’s role.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I’d also like to see more companies focus on stress reduction and bring those efforts under their wellness umbrella. When it comes to nutrition, there is an employer tie-in. There’s the obvious – health care costs. And also the impact that poor nutrition has on energy/productivity, overall health (which ties back to productivity, too, as well as absenteeism), self-esteem, and with a fat stigma, back to the bullying you mention. 


  3. I can see the necessity and the importance of employers caring about their employees´ health (like you said, there is definitely a tie-in based on health care costs). Still, the privacy issue is not one to be underestimated. Do I have to store all kind of information about my health history and eating habits on the company´s database so that the software can choose the best meal for me everyday? And how would they know if I threw the apple away? It is quite concerning, to say the least. Hopefully it will not become a compulsory tool, because I can easily see many favorably looking at such an instrument of control – see for example the related issue with smokers which I commented about on another entry on this website.

    1. Terry, the no-hire policies for smokers is a thorny one. I’m working on a post about that right now. It’s unclear how this system actually works. IBMers who’ve shared my post have told me they’re trying to understand if it’s being piloted or only in the patent idea stage. As with other private health information, this would need to consider HIPAA information, I’d imagine, especially if it is tied to health records. I’m curious to learn more about how the system works in reality. And where employers go with it. 

  4. It seems like this kind of system would be hard to monitor and is largely based on honesty.  But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.  Corporate wellness programs are becoming increasingly popular to try and keep employers healthy so that they can accomplish their tasks.  

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