"Technology is here to stay, and we need to leverage it to promote our health," said Dr. Corby Martin, director of the Ingestive Behavior, Weight Management & Health Promotion Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical. Now that mobile devices are commonplace, the goal is to make people's devices more helpful than harmful, Martin said.
For the past several years, Martin and other scientists at Pennington Biomedical have collaborated to develop a variety of mobile apps and screen-based intervention programs with the goal of improving health across the lifespan.
Portion Control: Smart Apps to Promote Health
The Remote Food Photography Method constitutes a large portion of Martin’s work. He developed the RFPM concept after research exposed a critical issue: People are terrible at gauging portion sizes.
“The difference between what people think they’ve eaten and what they’ve actually eaten is enough to sabotage weight loss efforts,” Martin said. “All of us, even the healthiest of people, need help with this.”
Two examples of Martin’s work are the SmartIntake and SmartLoss smartphone apps. SmartIntake estimates the energy, or caloric, intake of app users. It works by prompting participants to take before-and-after photos of their meals and submit the photos to a server maintained by scientists working on the app.
The system is successful because the participants’ food photos are analyzed by dietitians, who can then counsel participants about how to meet their daily nutritional goals. What’s particularly important is that the food intake data are collected in real time and in everyday settings, rather than in a lab.
Self-report methods such as food diaries and 24-hour recalls are commonly used to estimate food intake, Martin said, but those methods are prone to inaccuracy. People tend to underestimate their caloric intake by nearly 40 percent. In the initial SmartIntake study, Martin said 94 percent of participants preferred the RFPM to pen-and-paper food diaries. Scientists hope that such apps can help people stick to their diet better.