- Alex Hu
An obituary for my nutrition startup: WePlate
Updated: Aug 5, 2022
February 23, 2022 - July 31, 2022
Typically, founders don’t advertise their failed ventures. However, WePlate deserves its moment in the sun; I still believe that WePlate should exist - that nutrition should be a data-driven industry, and that modern diet apps are fundamentally flawed (calorie-counting promotes eating disorders).
Since I cannot build WePlate, I call upon others to turn it into reality. If you believe in the idea and can solve the challenges that I faced, then built it. The following is all you need to know about WePlate, with some internal assets attached.
What is WePlate?
Mission: to make eating healthy as simple as following a GPS.
Product #1: a diet app that tells you exactly what food items to eat from the meal items available to you, and how to portion them.
Product #2: cafeteria managment software (CMS) that helps cafeterias set healthy menus.
The problem(s) we tried to solve.
Students eat terribly. Self-explanatory if you’ve ever been to college.
We discovered it is mathematically impossible to eat healthy in many college cafeterias (see analysis below).
Here’s our White Paper which detailed why we existed.
The birth of the idea.
I grew up around nutrition. My mom was a dietitian, and she always made me eat my vegetables and vitamins. But when I first attended university, I was taken aback by the lacklustre dining options in the cafeteria.
I’m pretty old-fashioned. I don’t drink, smoke, or party. Yet, I immediately started gaining weight while eating in the school cafeteria. I grew to become suspicious of the nutritional content of the $3.3k/semester food plan.
Thus, after conducting statistical analysis of the cafeteria’s menus, I found that it was mathematically impossible to eat a healthy meal in the cafeteria.
Our analysis - nutrition is not intuitive.
Many people associate eating healthy as just eating salad, but this notion is completely false. Oversimplified, to eat healthy is to take in the nutrients that you need through a varied diet. In other words, eating nutritious food does not equal eating a nutritious meal.
However, no one has ever asked the question “is it mathematically possible to choose and portion food items from a cafeteria such that the resulting combination adequately fulfills a person’s nutrient needs?”
You can find the full menu analysis of the cafeteria in a small liberal arts college in the US East Coast below:
We generated ideal meals for a representative sample 200 students for every single meal across 7 weeks of cafeteria menu offerings.
97% of ideal meals contained fat surpluses. For other nutrient surpluses: sugar 90%, sodium 72%, protein 66%, cholesterol 38%, and calories 23%.
99% of ideal meals contained vitamin A deficits. For other nutrient deficits: vitamin D 96%, carbohydrates 80%, calcium 48%, and fibre 34%.
Almost all cafeteria meals, when ideally portioned, cannot meet students’ nutritional needs.
We conducted the same analysis with several other North American universities’ publicly available menus - resulting in similar results. The ‘Freshman 15’ isn’t a myth - it’s mathematically inevitable.
The extent of the issue - cafeterias don’t care.
It was horrifying enough that cafeteria meals contained extreme nutrient deficiencies and surpluses. It was even more horrifying to discover how little thought actually goes into nutrition in college cafeterias.
After speaking to dozens of college cafeteria managers and campus dietitians, here’s what I have found:
Even when cafeterias hire full-time nutritionists, they do not plan menus or create recipes. Many campus nutritionists just oversee production processes to avoid cross-contaminations.
Multiple cafeteria managers have admitted they do not consider nutrition when setting menus. In reality, individual dining teams do nothing to proactively ensure students eat healthily.
Cafeterias don’t realize a problem exists. Even when brought to their attention, few bothered to respond, and even fewer followed up. Out of 62 college dining teams we contacted, we met with 11 and had follow-ups with 4, but none took any action to remedy the problem. We didn't require any financial commitment - but every one of them ghosted us.
Long-term vision: nutrition as preventative medicine works.
While we’ve proved nutritional deficiencies exist within college cafeterias, dieting is a challenge faced by everyone living in developed countries. Rather than tedious calorie-counting, imagine an app that told you exactly what to eat and how to portion your food. You can easily see the exact nutrients you’re eating, and whether or not you’re reaching your goals.
WePlate is your GPS to eating healthy.
Here was our Vision Document.
Why we failed.
There does not exist market demand in college cafeterias. Bureaucracy and old-fashioned thinking killed progress.
Sadly, few cared about the problem we uncovered. Our solution is too abstract, solves an invisible problem that colleges choose to ignore, and isn't intuitively understood by most students. An invisible problem is one that effectively does not exist.
A pivot is unfeasible: 1) athletes, 2) consumer
Most athletes who care about nutrition already work with a team-sponsored nutritionist. And athletes who enjoy success without being ‘nerdy’ about nutrition don’t see the need.
In order to compete with mainstream diet apps, we would need to spend a year in development, perfecting the algorithm, building the database, and conducting testing. The college market is the petri dish to the real world, which is why I chose it in the first place.
I am not the right person to build the product.
I have neither the industry nor technical expertise to build the product. Nutrition is highly complex, and I lack the technical expertise to turn nutritional data into actionable insights. While we had a fantastic team of developers and advisors, including a researcher with a PhD in nutrition science and a campus dietitian at a sizeable US university, I couldn't fuse that nutritional expertise into a highly complex algorithm.
Furthermore, I realized that I am not prepared to spend the next 7-10 years of my life scaling a nutrition product when my true passion lies in making education better.
To reiterate - I am sharing WePlate with the world so that someone else can turn it into reality. Feel free to take this idea and built it yourself. If you are interested in the formulas and nutrition concepts we used, please email me explaining why you believe in WePlate. I’d be more than happy to share it.
Furthermore, if you are targeting the college market, I recommend winning over students before attempting to sell to colleges. Creating an audience that loves your product will incentivize colleges to make it official.
While it can be easy to pin the blame for the problem we uncovered on individuals within dining teams, the ultimate cause lies in college culture and bureaucracy. Too much power within the US college system is held by faceless administrators who rarely have the best interests of students at heart. While that misalignment of interest is already obvious in the courses that colleges offer, it also coincides with what colleges feed students.
Actions speak louder than words. I hope that in the coming years, colleges start taking real action towards ensuring students can eat and live healthy lives on campus.
Founder and CEO of WePlate
Pitch Decks, Product Demos, and Cafeteria Menu Analysis