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Apple's Tim Cook has tracked his blood sugar, so I tried it too -- here's what I learned

  • Tracking blood sugar is a trend in Silicon Valley now, with bigshots such as Apple CEO Tim Cook trying it.
  • The big question: Is it worth the cost?
One Drop finger prick
Christina Farr
One Drop finger prick

Apple CEO Tim Cook has tried using a glucometer to track his blood sugar. So I decided to give it a shot, too.

Millions of people with diabetes monitor their glucose levels on a daily basis. Some are even tracking it continuously. But in Silicon Valley, the trend is now spreading to tech workers who don't have the disease, but feel they'll more easily avoid sugary treats if they can visualize the data. Some are reporting dramatic results with weight loss and increased productivity.

Nothing quite that profound happened to me after 10 days of tracking, but I did learn a few things.

Before I share these insights with you, there are a few things you need to know. I'm a reasonably healthy person, as far as journalists go, so I wasn't expecting to see many extreme fluctuations in my blood sugar. I pricked my finger 5 times per day, rather than use a continuous tracker. And I very occasionally treat myself to sugary foods, like chocolate, but work out a moderate amount three to four times a week.

Getting started

I ordered my kit from a startup called One Drop, which sells a glucose meter, lance and unlimited test strips by subscription. Those who are curious and don't have type 1 diabetes will likely have to pay fully out-of-pocket. The price tag is $99 for the system, not including the cost of subscription-based test strips and coaching. The company on Monday expanded its offering to include a new product for those who are at high risk for diabetes, called One Drop Plus.

The One Drop glucose monitor.
The One Drop glucose monitor.

Setting up the system was fairly intuitive, once I paired the One Drop app with my glucose meter, which displayed all my readings. With a short delay, those readings synced up with the app, so I was able to review all the trends over time.

Track blood sugar with One Drop
Christina Farr
Track blood sugar with One Drop

I had the option to manually input my meals, which I failed to do with any consistency (it was time-consuming to look up and log every item that I ate). I also synced up the app with Apple's HealthKit, which meant I could automatically share my steps.

The hardest part involved the actual finger-pricking. That experience gave me a lot more empathy for people with diabetes, who need to do this many times a day.

It wasn't painful, but it was cumbersome and I had to find ways to covertly prick myself in front of friends and colleagues at restaurants and bars. Apple's Cook shared a similar sentiment when he described his own experience to a group of students in Scotland: "It's mentally anguishing," he said.

Once I figured out how to squeeze enough blood from my finger, with the help of warm water, gentle massaging and gravity, I started taking readings at random points in the day.

What I learned 

The first thing I did wrong was to approach the experience without having done my research. I tended to prick myself when I remembered to, rather than with any kind of strategy. So I gave Aaron Neinstein, assistant professor of endocrinology at UC San Francisco and a director of clinical informatics, a call.

Taking a glucose reading
Christina Farr
Taking a glucose reading

Neinstein suggested the following:

  • Look at the impact from exercise. Get a reading before and after a workout. After doing that, I learned that my blood sugar fell, often for several hours after a workout.
  • Get a reading first thing in the morning. A normal reading, according to Neinstein, is around 70 to 100 mg/dL. Make sure you haven't eaten food for about 6 to 8 hours.
  • Try a reading after eating a meal. It's normal to see a spike after sugary foods, which could prove to be a deterrent.

After following Neinstein's advice, I got fairly hooked on visualizing how my body reacted to things that are generally considered healthy (exercise, nutritious food) versus those things I love that aren't advisable except in moderation (alcohol, gummy bears, milk chocolate). By the end of the first week, I started working out more regularly and eating healthier. This is common sense -- and advice that doctors routinely give -- but actually visualizing my data was surprisingly helpful.

The bigger question is whether it's worth the cost. In the wake of the experiment, I wouldn't pay out-of-pocket for a subscription. The week-and-a-half long snapshot was enough for me.

Several medical experts have already made the case that it's pointless for healthy people to track blood sugar.

"The truth is that we don't know if it's useful yet," Neinstein said. "What we do know is that there's a huge benefit to feedback, but a healthy person might draw the wrong or right conclusions from that."

Do you track your blood sugar, but you don't have diabetes? Share your stories with me @chrissyfarr on Twitter.