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Mobile App to Track Fat, Sugar Consumption

Sugar cubes

(Mae Mu, Unsplash.

1 Apr. 2021. A mobile app is being created that allows users to record their eating of saturated fat and added sugar in near real time to better gauge health effects. A team at University of Arizona in Tucson is developing the app, funded by a five-year $3.3 million grant from National Cancer Institute, part of National Institutes of Health.

Researchers from University of Arizona’s medical school are seeking better research tools to more accurately measure individuals’ intake of food, particularly food associated with unhealthy outcomes. The team led by Arizona family and community health professor Susan Schembre includes researchers from other universities and the nutrition assessment technology company Viocare Inc. in Kingston, New Jersey that designs nutrition measurement systems for research.

Better assessments are needed, says the study team, since excessive intake of added sugar and saturated fat is a leading cause of premature mortality among adults in the U.S., contributing to some 700,000 deaths per year. In addition, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, recommend limiting these foods to less than 10 percent of total energy intake to prevent disease.

The use of mobile apps for tracking food intake is not new, but according to the researchers, they do not provide precise, reliable, or timely measurements needed by researchers. Most of today’s food surveys, says the project team, use food frequency questionnaires or require respondents to remember exactly what they ate in the previous 24 hours.

Mobile technology makes possible real time assessments

“The problem is these methods are time-intensive and cognitively taxing for study participants and costly for researchers,” says Schembre in a university statement. “They are also highly prone to recall bias and misreporting related, in part, to the reliance on a person’s memory over long recall intervals and errors in portion-size estimation.”

The researchers are adapting a behavior assessment method called ecological momentary assessment or EMA, that aims to record behaviors and experiences in real time, or close to it. “Leveraging EMA to develop a new method of dietary assessment,” notes Schembre, “is of great significance to the field of human nutrition and will advance our understanding of eating behaviors as they naturally occur.”

Mobile technology makes EMA for tracking food intake more feasible. The researchers are designing the app to prompt users multiple times a day to report their eating of various foods by choosing items from lists. Those lists will include foods and beverages high in saturated fats and added sugar that contribute 70 percent or more of these substances to the American diet. The app will also provide images to help determine portion sizes.

Moreover, the team is designing the app as a tool for measuring dietary behavior in general, not just fats and sugar. The researchers expect the technology can be extended to provide real-time dietary guidance to users, and capture the context of an individual’s food consumption, such as social or environmental factors, to help guide appropriate advice.

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