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Phone app is latest weapon in war on obesity

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New phone app may help people lose weight

A smart phone app is the latest weapon for fighting the battle of the bulge, and a new study found it helps people lose weight by paying attention to what they eat, and then carefully recording it using their smart phone. The research is being presented by Dr. Eric Robinson, University of Liverpool, UK, and colleagues at this week’s annual European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Liverpool.

Robinson and his team reviewed previous research on attentive evidence, concluding that being distracted while eating (e.g. by radio, television, computers, etc.) made people eat up to 50% more – and not just during that particular meal, but also later in the day, which resulted in a significant increase in overall food intake for the day. The review found that paying attention to what was eaten, and remembering it clearly, helped reduce the amount of food eaten.

It has long been believed that remembering what we have eaten during previous meals helps prevent eating too much at future meals. And that school-of-thought carries over to the belief that being distracted while eating can also disrupt the “satiation” portion of the brain. When that happens, it prevents the reward function in the brain from remembering how satisfying it was to eat a certain food earlier, resulting in a desire to seek more reward (as in food) later. This, in turn, causes people to eat more later on because they probably lost track of what they ate earlier.

Accordingly, Robinson and his colleagues designed a smart phone app for those who were overweight or obese to help them remember what they ate. The app consists of the following three parts:

Part 1: Photo. Prior to eating, users access the 'Snap' function on the app to select which meal they are going to eat (e.g. breakfast, lunch, evening meal, snack, drink, other). After making a selection, the app loads up a camera view finder and users photograph the meal about to be consumed. Next, the application relays a short text message reminding users to complete the 'Most Recent' function when they have finished their meal.

Part 2: Most Recent. After finishing their meal, users access the 'Most Recent' function, and the photograph of the meal they just consumed is pictured, including information about the meal type and time consumed. With this image on the screen, users select drop down answers to questions about their meal experience, such as: 'Did you finish it all?' and 'How full are you now?'

Part 3: I've Been Eating. Prior to deciding what and how much to eat for a meal, users access the ‘I've Been Eating’ Function, which opens an interactive chronological slide show of the meals they’ve consumed and recorded during that day. A brief text message instructs users to 'remind themselves of what they have been eating'. Users can then navigate forwards and backwards through the various meals they’ve eaten. After viewing the most recently recorded meal, users are reminded to eat attentively and to snap their next meal.

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To test the app, the researchers conducted a feasibility pilot study with 12 overweight and obese participants, consisting of 7 women and 5 men. Each of the 12 participants were recruited from the University of Birmingham, UK, between August and September of 2012. To be eligible, each participant had to meet the following criteria: 1) own an iPhone (version 2.0 or later); 2) have a BMI (body mass index) greater than 25.0 kg/m2; 3) have a desire to lose some weight; 4) not have any history of eating disorders; and 5) not being treated with insulin for diabetes.

Five of the 12 participants were overweight, and 7 were obese when they participated in the four week trial. During those four weeks, the participants had an overall mean weight loss of 1.5 kg. Six out of the 12 participants lost 1kg or more, four lost between 0 and 1kg, and the remaining two participants gained between 0.1 and 0.4 kg. On average, the participants accessed the smart phone application 5.7 times a day, and the mean number of meals recorded was 2.7 per day.

"Adherence data suggested that overweight and obese participants in our four week trial used the application regularly, personalized the application based on their daily routine and were able to use the three main functions of the application," said Robinson.

"Raising awareness of eating and weight loss achieved suggest this approach could be fruitful. The 1.5kg average weight loss observed is similar to a recent more intensive two month trial which investigated the impact of dietary/exercise advice and habit formation. Given that our trial was a very brief intervention with little contact time and no nutritional advice or support, this is a promising finding. A larger, randomized controlled trial testing proof of principle for an attentive eating intervention on weight loss is now warranted," he added.

Robinson and his research team say further studies need to also examine long-term feasibility of the application, which is important because long term maintenance of changes to the diet and weight can be hard to achieve.

"Our study introduces a new attentive eating approach aimed at reducing dietary intake and promoting weight loss, supported by theoretical models of the role of memory on energy intake regulation. Results suggest that a simple smartphone based intervention based on these principles is feasible and could promote healthier dietary practices," Robinson concluded.

To read about another study on a smart phone app designed to help you lose weight, click here.

SOURCE: European Congress on Obesity (ECO), "Smart Phone App To Increase Attentive Eating Helps Users Lose Weight As They Remember What They Eat." May 14, 2013; Phone App Aids Weight Loss by Promoting Attentive Eating. Medscape. May 14, 2013.