Meta Nutrition app helps USC students eat healthy

Created by USC senior Simone Zienna, Meta Nutrition is the newest resource to help students achieve their dietary goals. (Photo from Meta Nutrition app)

Senior computer science student Simone Zienna pulled 14-hour work days over winter break and, while at school, begins his day of coding at 10 a.m., which often extends well into the night. The outcome of all his hard work? Meta Nutrition.

Meta Nutrition, an app focused on health in USC dining halls, is the result of Zienna’s two passions: nutrition and software engineering. The app works to help USC students maintain diets that will help them accomplish their fitness goals. Zienna comprehensively developed both iOS and Android versions of Meta Nutrition — branded as “Your Personal Nutritionist” — in just 11 months, and he’s already planning for the future.

Zienna is a health buff himself. Certified in nutrition, he works as a nutritionist and personal trainer at the Lyon Center. Zienna said he created the app out of his passion for helping students balance their studies and extracurricular activities with nutrition and fitness.

“I’ve noticed that people really try, and then many times they just give up because there’s so much information thrown at you,” Zienna said. “There’s all these apps and products out there and they delegate the work to you, there’s a bunch of information that you need to make sense out of. I felt that there was a need for somebody to guide people.”

Meta Nutrition takes a holistic approach to tailoring dining hall options to the specific needs of students. Fitness goal options include “lose weight,” “gain weight,” “gain muscle” and “balanced nutrition.” Diet types range from regular, vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free. The app also covers a variety of dietary restrictions, from shellfish to sesame to soy. A user’s profile consists of any combination of the three dietary categorizations.

Meta Nutrition pulls online menus from USC’s three dining halls’ websites. That information is stored in a database, which then inputs users’ restrictions and goals. Everything is run through an algorithm created by Zienna, and comes out in the form of meals that match a user’s specifications, to a certain extent.

Zienna explains how “in the vegan and vegetarian communities many people still want to go to the gym and gain muscle,” but lack adequate nutrition information. Meta Nutrition aims to bridge that gap.

For a vegetarian looking to gain weight, the app suggests a Parkside Restaurant & Grill lunch of assorted fruits, steamed white rice, coriander garbanzo beans, steamed broccoli and sautéed mushrooms as a 100 percent match. An 80 percent match, though, recommends plain pasta, steamed wheat berries and french fries. Zienna admits that the app is not perfect but intends to continue improving its algorithm.

For now, Zienna is working on growing out a team to help expand Meta Nutrition to other college campuses.

“Eventually, I want to expand to restaurants,” he said.

Zienna doesn’t only plan to expand externally, but also within the app.

“By next month I’m planning on adding the Keto diet,” he added.

While some users may find the app bulky — advertisements clutter the homepage next to sliding images which are resized imperfectly — it gets the job done. Students with fitness goals and dietary restrictions can now learn to eat from the dining halls in ways that complement their daily lives. Most importantly, it has a prominent feedback section, where users can leave comments about the app.