The National Science Foundation (NSF) is spending $1.7 million to monitor how and what obese families eat, tracking their eating via sensors they wear on their waists.
The research, conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of Virginia, began this month. Families will be monitored for months at a time
A leading researcher on the project said the study is a "novel" approach to fighting childhood obesity.
"Recent advances in remote sensing have provided a new paradigm for tracking human behavior, but obesity-related efforts focused directly on diet and activity have been hampered by not only the accuracy of behavior tracking (especially dietary intake) but also the lack of behavioral theories and dynamic models for personalized just-in-time, adaptive interventions (JITAIs)," according to a grant for the project. "Current behavioral science suggests that family eating dynamics (FED) have high potential to impact child and parent dietary intake and obesity rates."
The project will use wearable wireless sensors to track the family’s eating habits, in the hopes of bring about "behavior modification."
"The confluence of technology research and behavioral science research creates the opportunity to change the focus of in situ obesity research and intervention from behaviors that have proven difficult to monitor, model, and modify (e.g., what and how much is being eaten) to the family mealtime and home food environment (e.g., who is eating, when, where, with whom, interpersonal stress), providing opportunities for monitoring and modeling (M2) behavior via remote sensing, and the potential for successful behavior modification via personalized, adaptable, real-time feedback," the grant said.
The project, dubbed M2FED, is using a system of "in-home beacons, wireless and wearable sensors, and smartphones" to collect real time data of what the research subjects are eating.
"This project connects complimentary expertise to develop a dramatically different approach to childhood obesity, focusing on behaviors, i.e. [family eating dynamics] FED rather than diet, that can be more accurately monitored and modeled and have greater potential for positive and long-term modification," the grant said.
Dr. Donna Spruijt-Metz, the director of USC’s mHealth Collaboratory Center for Economic and Social Research who is one of the project’s lead investigators, told the Washington Free Beacon that sensors will be worn on the wrist and waist.
"Monitoring will work using convenient wireless wearables (likely wrist and waist worn) and very light touch beacons placed in the home," she said. "The first part of the study will be very user-centered. We will start with two-month deployments in five homes at a time."
Spruijt-Metz said a total of 15 families would be studied the first year, followed by 20 families, who will be monitored for two months at a time, the second year. The project will continue until 2019. Twenty families will be monitored four months during the final two years of the research.
"It is a pretty ambitious project, but the data that we accrue will be absolutely novel and informative," she said. "We are going to learn many new things with this proposal about how family systems function dynamically around food and eating, and how this impacts eating behavior."
Spruijt-Metz’s Obesity Research and Mobile Health Lab at USC uses technology to develop "culturally sensitive, evidence based approaches to promote health behavior change."