Based in Austin, Texas, Info Aperture is a blog by Kate McKerlie.

You Are What You Absorb: uncertainty in counting calories

You Are What You Absorb: uncertainty in counting calories

If you've ever been concerned about your weight, You might of come across the phrase "you are what you eat" which is just another way of saying your diet has an impact on your physical appearance. If you've dug a little deeper, you might of been introduced the concept of "calories" and may have even come across another saying, "calories in calories out" which refers to the idea that in order to lose or gain weight you need to consume less calories than you expend.

Next thing you know, you find yourself looking at the federally required food nutrition label on a packaged food item at the store, calculating the amount of calories you ate that day, maybe you even used an app to keep track- making sure you don't eat more than your daily "allowance, and if you do, you push a little harder in your workout that day- one of the known ways to "burn calories."  But how can you be sure that your calculations are correct? What about the food label? Is that even correct? And are all calories “equal?” Does your body respond to the calories in a vanilla milkshake as it does to a kale salad? Let's explore some of this uncertainty in this month’s #SWDchallenge entry.

You are what you absorb-01.png

Often in information design and data visualization making things more “certain” to our audiences is at the crux of what we do. This month’s #SWDchallenge was interesting because we were asked to deliberately visualize “uncertainty,” which is what you need to do sometimes to be more accurate and correctly set the expectations of your audience. I often seen this “uncertainty” presented with error bars or dotted lines or differently shaded areas, or a widening of a shaded area to show the range of possibility. I decided to try the “sketchy” route. I was inspired by Elijah Meek’s Medium article on using “sketchy” mode to convey that something might be unfinished or possibly “uncertain.” I decided to explore a topic that I think is often considered more certain, than it actually is- counting calories. To do this I felt like I needed to bring in some background information, and give people an introduction. While I do think most people are familiar with the concept of a calorie, I doubt people could tell you that it’s actually a unit of energy that is measured by how much the food heats up water. I also made sure people know that those “daily recommended calories” you see everywhere are actually determined and affected by a range of factors. I used the “sketchy” effect by showing you the range by using an “imperfect shape” and area. I also decided to make up what a “calorie” looks like. I had several sketches for my “calorie” but I went with this little gubber type because I felt like his attitude was one of action and change but could also be a goop of slime, that might slow us down- like consuming too many calories.

another one my visualizations of a calorie.

another one my visualizations of a calorie.

After giving that context, I found it interesting to share some information about what you see on most food labels. I tried to demonstrate that a “calorie isn’t just a calorie” with some factoids about the caloric content of the common macronutrients you see on a label.

Finally I present the “uncertainty” of how much of the macronutrient calories your body actually uses in metabolic processes vs what you need to either burn or store by displaying the range with a “imperfect shape” lapping over the possible % range.

I had fun with this, and recognize maybe “sketchy” might not be the most straightforward or clear cut way to display uncertainty, but I think with a little imagination and annotation it’s a nice way to educate your audience and possibly even entertain them.

As always, Thank you for the opportunity, SWD!

Sources & interesting related links:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC506782/

https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-7075-1-5

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11838888

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3605747/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udjBGCJ24QI

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-food-manufacturers/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEQaH4LruUo

Telling the "whole story:" October 2019 SWD Challenge

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