How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self”

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about this new quantitative approach to be much help. It’s very frustrating. We just had a retreat at the [UCSD] School of Medicine, and this was a big topic. Patients are coming in with much more quantitative knowledge about the state of their body than the physicians have in the patient’s medical record. Also, the patient often knows more about the implications of the data than the physician does, because the physician hasn’t been trained to make inferences from this range of quantitative data.

X: What are you actually measuring yourself? You talked earlier about sodium and sugar, and how measuring these things somehow caused you to change your behavior.

LS: Let’s start with lipid (fat) sector. If you are worried about heart disease, there are a number of things to look at. First, there’s the LDL, “bad” cholesterol. Within LDL there are four different sub-sizes of lipids. The ones that are most worrisome are the ones small enough to actually get inside the walls of your blood vessels, and help start plaque to accumulate. The plaque tends to accumulate because of inflammation. There are a number of inflammation markers like high-sensitivity complex reactive protein, a generic marker, whose value tells you whether your body is in an inflamed state. If it is, the bad cholesterol can begin to deposit plaque and cause future problems like heart disease or stroke.

So you measure those things to see if a problem is beginning to occur. For instance, there’s a whole set of other chemicals that you can look at that involve your insulin-glucose system, which can tell you if you are in danger of being pre-diabetic. A significant fraction of our society is either diabetic or pre-diabetic. The test often involves fasting for 24 hours before you draw blood. Then there’s a whole set of issues with inorganic compounds, like sodium, potassium, all the way up through iron and your red blood cell system, whose major function is carrying oxygen-bound iron compounds. Then you can measure a half-dozen variables related to your thyroid function, measure all the different subtypes of red and white blood cells, and whether there are deviations in the numbers or shapes of those.

X: How does this work, do you give yourself a pinprick blood test every day?

LS: It’s not a pinprick. I use a combination approach for my tests. There are a certain number of these tests that the insurance company will pay for if the doctor asks for them. So I have a regular dialogue with my doctor, probably much more regular than most people would. Maybe every four to six months.

Additionally, I work with a private sector company,, which sub-contracts blood tests to local establishments. There are a dozen or more in San Diego that are just places you go to, just like you would in a hospital, and they take blood samples and send them off to a laboratory. The amount of blood varies anywhere from one vial to a maximum of a dozen vials that I have given at once.

X: How often do you do that?

LS: I give a blood sample on average, every three to six months.

X: When did you start doing this?

LS: Around three years ago, when I realized from a lot of reading that if my goal was to become even healthier than I am, I needed to keep track of my numbers so I could tune myself.

X: You decided at the first of the year, you wanted to lose weight, and ever since you’ve been losing about a pound a week. What was it in the information that you’ve been gathering that’s enabled you to change your behavior and help you lose weight?

LS: What I’ve talked about so far is the internal state of your body. But on a daily basis, you feed your body. Food contains some of the most powerful chemicals we introduce into our bodies. They can impact much of our hormone and endocrine systems. Analyzing that food intake … Next Page »

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13 responses to “How Internet Pioneer Larry Smarr Lost 20 Pounds by Becoming a “Quantified Self””

  1. David says:

    Almost everything Mr. Smarr says is true. But I also believe that more adults actually know these things than our obesity rate would indicate. The problem is motivation and ease ease of use. People have no desire to sit in front of a spreadsheet and calculate this stuff every day. The company that comes up with a device that calculates all these things with no more interaction from the use than to look down at their smart phone and know their metrics for the day, will be the one to win the prize. The missing piece is a calorie counter that accurately measures intake, without the user having to type anything. Some sort of bioelectronic device that knows, in real-time, what you’ve just eaten.

  2. David is correct that it is discouraging to have to keep track in detail of everything you eat. Even just counting calories is a pain. Fortunately, there are a lot of new iPhone and Android apps that are very helpful in this regard. The reason I did the detailed counting for a fixed number of days, like taking experimental data, was to get insights into my normal eating habits. I found that I was eating too much fat and so that was the sector I cut the calories. I now know to take a teaspoon, not a tablespoon of olive oil, or to limit the number of fat-rich nuts I eat for a snack. So the quantitative “deep dive” once in a while is to sharpen your intuition for eating and come up with some “rules of thumb” for guiding your daily eating routine. I havent spent any time since my 12 day detailed look counting calories, but the results of that experiment have changed my eating habits and allowed me to lose weight.