Encouraging healthier food choices and the role of technology

Over the last few decades, the obesity epidemic has continued to rise. Now in the UK a total of 23% of adults and 33.3% of 10–11-year-olds are considered to be obese. In the UK obesity costs the health care system more than £5bn each year.  Excess weight is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and it is well-known that these lifestyle-related diseases are now a leading cause of death globally. Diet is a key modifiable risk factor of obesity and therefore non-communicable diseases. As a result, tackling the obesity epidemic in high on the agenda for countries, not only to improve the health of their nation but to reduce the cost to their public healthcare systems and improve economic development. A whole host of approaches are being used across the EU and wider, to encourage people to make healthier food choices, whether it is through education at a school level, increasing the availability of healthier choices or using technology to track individual’s intake and encourage them to make healthier choices.

Many studies have been carried out to understand what influences a person’s choice around food and it has been shown that the average person makes up to 200 food related decisions a day. Wansink, B. (2015) reviewed over a 100 studies where consumer’s behaviours around healthy eating were investigated. From these studies, three main factors were determined to influence an individual’s decision; convenience, attractiveness, and the selection of the healthier choice being the norm. As well as these factors it is also important to recognise the impact of;1) education on why certain choices are the healthier choice and 2) the environment in which these choices are made, have. Therefore, as well as using the factors Wansink, B. (2015) identified when encouraging healthier choices it is critical to ensure there is education incorporated into the approach used and to ensure the behaviours learnt become long term rather than short term.

At PRECIOUS we are using technology to aid users to make healthier lifestyle choices. There are many benefits to the use of technology, including, ease of integration already in daily life, the high level of connectivity which allows the easy transfer of data, and the portability allowing it to be use at any time, any place. As a result, it is likely technology will continue to have a significant role in encouraging healthier food choices. It is nevertheless, important to remember the role personalisation also has in encouraging healthier food choices, during the development of these new technologies, particularly in terms of the nutritional requirements and motivational feedback. Therefore any technology developed will not only need to fit into that’s user’s life with minimal disruption, but will be able to carry out the required level of data processing to personalise its interaction with the user.  This level of personalisation can create challenges due to the number of factors influencing the personalisation required, however through the use of state of the art modelling and design, this is achievable.
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As part of the PRECIOUS project we aim to encourage healthier food choices, and in turn reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. To achieve this we are developing a dietary intake and physical activity application to provide individuals with an alternative way to recording their dietary intake. This app will then be part of an overall PRECIOUS system which will use state of the art motivational and gaming techniques to encourage users to change their behaviours to make healthier lifestyle choices. To ensure the application developed makes a real impact on its users, we are carrying out a consumer study to investigate what factors influence the usability of an application for different user groups.  During this study we will investigate two freely available applications and compare them to the current version of the PRECIOUS intake app and another dietary intake app being developed as part of another EU FP7-funded project called; QUALIFY. The study is expected to start in late September 2015, with the results being used to evaluate the current usability of the PRECIOUS application with super users, and then aid the further development.

 References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/213720/dh_130487.pdf
  2. Wansink, B. (2015), Change Their Choice! Changing Behavior Using the CAN Approach and Activism Research. Psychol. Mark., 32: 486–500. doi: 10.1002/mar.20794
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