Diet, End-of-Life Care, Nutrition

Ask a Chatbot: ‘What’s for Dinner?’

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Tarena Lofton, Kaiser Health News

Olivia Scholes, 28, of Vancouver, British Columbia, has polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. She is among the estimated 1 in 10 women globally who are diagnosed with this hormonal condition, which can cause multiple ovarian cysts, infertility, weight gain, and other issues.

After being diagnosed with PCOS about 10 years ago, Scholes managed her condition in part by trying to consume — or abstain from — certain foods and drinks. But at times, transferring her knowledge from her brain to her plate proved complicated and time-consuming.

“Just because I know that information doesn’t mean that I’m planning my meals with that information all the time,” Scholes said.

Scholes was scrolling through TikTok when she saw a video explaining how ChatGPTwas used to build a detailed nutrition and workout plan. That video inspired Scholes to see if the chatbot, an artificial intelligence program trained to give a detailed response to a prompt, could give her meal options tailored to PCOS.

Weight and insulin management can help reduce the impact of PCOS. Because many people with PCOS experience insulin resistance, controlling insulin levels through diet is one of the best steps people can take to help manage the condition.

She started by asking ChatGPT if it knew what foods were best for people with PCOS and insulin resistance, and the chatbot provided a list of foods that met the criteria. Scholes followed up by asking if the system could provide a two-week meal plan that catered to PCOS and insulin resistance, consisting of three meals a day, two snacks a day, and desserts without artificial sweeteners. Within seconds, Scholes had a list of foods, which she then asked ChatGPT to turn into a grocery list.

Although Scholes already knew a lot of information ChatGPT gave her about PCOS and her diet, she said the chatbot transforming that information into planned-out meals would make it easier for her to purchase ingredients for a variety of meals in the future.

“For me, the big help that ChatGPT was, was not only did it take the information that I already knew; it put that information in, like, a tangible space for me,” said Scholes.

A photo of Olivia Scholes outside.
Olivia Scholes has polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, and has dietary restrictions because of it. After seeing TikTok videos of others using ChatGPT for meal planning, she used the chatbot to make a meal plan and grocery list tailored to her condition.(OLIVIA SCHOLES)

ChatGPT — developed by the company OpenAI — launched publicly in November and reached 100 million active users in January, making it the fastest-growing consumer app in history.

ChatGPT is trained on a large body of text from a variety of sources, such as Wikipedia, books, news articles, and scientific journals. The advanced AI chatbot allows users to enter a text prompt and receive an intelligently generated output that allows for back-and-forth conversations. Other chatbots, such as Google’s Bard and Bing AI chat, also from Microsoft, are similar to ChatGPT and can plan meals.

Some health and wellness professionals say ChatGPT’s ability to have conversations can be useful for generating meal plans and ideas for people who have specific health goals and dietary needs.

Scholes shared her experience using ChatGPT in a TikTok video. That video now has more than 1.3 million views and a comment section flooded with questions about her experience.

In February, Jamie Askey of Lufkin, Texas, made a TikTok video explaining how to use ChatGPT to generate free meal plans and grocery lists that meet goals for calories and macronutrients, which are the nutrients the body needs in large amounts, like fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. She’s made lots of videos since the beginning of 2021 giving health advice, from easy meal-prep recipes to tips for how to stop binge-eating. And as someone who helps people create meals that contain nutrient-dense foodswithout cutting out foods people enjoy eating, she was excited about how ChatGPT could potentially ease the process of meal planning.

Her video now has more than 13,000 views on TikTok and people have thanked her in the comments for sharing the tip.

“A great thing about this website is that it’s very conversational,” Askey said of ChatGPT. “So, if you are asking it for a specific type of diet, it can give you that.”

Unlike with Google and other search engines, users do not have to search topics one at a time. The dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to follow an instruction in a prompt, provide a detailed response, and answer follow-up questions.

Users interested in generating meal options might tell ChatGPT “I want you to act as a dietitian” or “I want you to make me a healthy nutrition plan.” The chatbot will then respond with clarifying questions to help it generate an appropriate meal plan. The user may need to provide additional information such as their height, weight, any dietary restrictions, and goals.

Askey, a registered nurse who now works as a certified macro nutrition coach, warns that people with chronic illness should be evaluated by a professional before using a chatbot for meal planning.

“The possibilities are endless when you ask this machine what you’re wanting to know from a knowledge standpoint,” Askey said. “But another thing you have to think about is this is not black and white always. There are gray areas and that’s where health history comes into play. That’s where dieting history comes into play.”

ChatGPT users have boasted about the program’s capabilities and are enthused by the idea it could simplify everyday tasks. But the chatbot is not without flaws. One hitch: ChatGPT’s training data cuts off in 2021, meaning some information it provides may be outdated. For meal planning and nutrition, the program not being able to pull the latest health and wellness guidelines can be particularly troublesome for people with certain health conditions.

The model can also generate incorrect information, providing wrong answers or misunderstanding what the user is asking. When Scholes asked the chatbot for two weeks’ worth of meals, the chatbot stopped at day eight.

Some users have also expressed concerns about glitches and bias within the technology that can negatively affect the types of responses it generates. In December 2022, Steven T. Piantadosi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, posted a Twitter thread highlighting biases.

OpenAI, the artificial intelligence research company behind ChatGPT, has acknowledged the potential for bias within AI. It said in a February blog post that many people are “rightly worried about biases in the design and impact of AI systems.” In that post, the company also outlined some of the steps it is taking to eliminate biases.

Scholes wonders if existing biases against certain types of people could affect her results.

“If ChatGPT is built on any sort of fatphobic stuff, me looking for stuff that is geared towards women who are fat and deal with issues of fatness and PCOS and stuff, what kind of biases are built into that system already?”

For anyone considering using ChatGPT to help generate a meal plan to reach fitness and health goals, Askey said to double-check the program’s work. “AI, it’s not a person,” she said. “So, you always want to double-check.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

This story also ran on The Washington Post. It can be republished for free.

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