The old adage of “you are what you eat” has an even greater meaning when preparing for long- duration travel to deep space, where storage is tight and fresh food is limited.
“Understanding the relationship of diet with crew health is critical for future exploration missions, where nutrition will be a key countermeasure in mitigating the negative effects of spaceflight on the body,” said Scott M. Smith, nutritionist at NASA.
The International Space Station Food Intake Tracker (ISS FIT) iPad app, recently delivered to the space station, simplifies the way astronauts track their meals. The ISS FIT app gives astronauts real-time feedback about their dietary habits and offers greater insight for physicians and researchers on Earth looking to keep crews healthy and fit.
“We’ve recently documented that astronauts can protect their bones with good nutrition and exercise,” said Smith. “This app puts the tools in their hands to track this information in real time.”
While similar to apps available on Earth, the ISS FIT is designed specifically for use in space. With days numbered from one to 365, the food database includes foods available on the space station, including those from international partner agencies. The app does not require internet access to sync with the food database as many of the apps available on Earth require. The app reports nutrients specifically of concern for astronauts (and often terrestrial beings), ensuring adequate calorie consumption, minimizing sodium intake and maintaining hydration to reduce kidney stone risk.
The app, developed through NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, used crowdsourcing techniques hosted by TopCoder. Designed for use on the space station, the solution had to meet strict criteria, offer multiple user options and work without internet connectivity. The app allows crew members to record foods available on the space station. It gives astronauts options to record foods from a checklist, search tool, using audio recording, taking photos or scanning barcodes, if available.
“We’re looking for astronauts to record all of their intake – every food, every meal, every day during their six-month stays on the International Space Station,” said Dr. Sara Zwart, nutritionist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and lead on the project. “It had to be easy, quick and accurate.”
The app provides real-time information on key nutrients including calories, sodium and fluid, allowing crew members to see at lunch that they need to consume more water later in the day, for example. Fluid intake is important for hydration but specifically for reducing kidney stone risk, which is higher during flight.
The app replaces a weekly computer questionnaire, which provided an estimate of dietary intake over the week. The detailed data not only helps crews in real time each day, but also will allow for more detailed assessments of dietary intake during flight and relating these to other crew health concerns like bone loss and vision changes.