App-Based Data Collection and the Future of Eating Disorder Treatment

Through app-based data collection, smartphones may change the future of eating disorder treatment, according to the EU Research Council.

With images of the “thin ideal” and triggering web content just a click away, technology is often considered a source of negativity for those struggling with an eating disorder. Researchers within the EU Research Council are aiming to reverse this association and utilize this generation’s reliance on smartphone technology as an asset.

Smartphone Support for Bulimia and BED Patients

Lead researcher on current project NewEap app, Julia Reichenberger, has begun work to provide support for individuals prior to and during eating disorder treatment for binge eating disorder and bulimia. Guided interventions via smartphone apps have already proven to be effective, leading the EU Research Council to believe this novel intervention modality would do a world of good to “provide support for therapy and reduce the impact eating disorders have on sufferers as well as the people who care about them.”

Dr. Beintner, clinical psychotherapist from Dresden University of Technology in Germany and researcher for existing EU-funded app projects, states that therapeutic apps “encourage patients to ‘make use of the (therapy) waiting time by looking into their personal eating disorder history, educating themselves about strategies they can use to start monitoring and controlling their symptoms and enabling them to make some changes to their behaviour.”

The Purpose of NewEat

Horizon Magazine writes “utilizing this reliance on smartphones and the internet, NewEat, a new project funded by the EU’s European Research Council, aims to understand the foundations of anorexia, bulimia nervosa (binge eating and then purging, either by vomiting or laxatives), binge eating disorder and obesity as a basis of ultimately lowering its prevalence.”

Currently, the EU Council is working on two distinct eating disorder-based projects. Firstly, researchers are trying to find patterns and precursors to binge eating disorder so that an app can predict behavior and intervene proactively. Julia Reichenberger, founder of the NewEat app and researcher from the University of Salzburg in Austria, states that “studies found that food cravings had peaks and troughs throughout the day – hunger would increase at around midday or dinner time, forming an ‘M’ shaped pattern based on these cravings.”

While NewEat is a researched based app that hopes to act as an aid to the therapy process, Reichenger wants to shed light on cravings, patterns, and behaviors of binge eaters to benefit all eating disorder interventions and expand that apps capabilities in the future. Currently, NewEat is looking to identify daily relationships between stress and overeating in patients with eating disorders along with the context in which unhealthy eating behaviors take place.

Exploring Emotional Eating with PsyDiary

A second app, PsyDiary, explores emotional eating in an attempt to study certain behaviors like stress and emotions impact on eating. Reichenberger states “If people are stressed, they will decrease their eating for pleasure (instead of eating for reasons of hunger). Individuals with bulimic tendencies, however, will increase their pleasure-based eating when stressed.“ The desired outcome of such research would be to create a smartphone app that not only recognizes when a user is in a situation that may promote a compulsion or urge to eat, but would signal that individual to “try something else.” Tailored tips and suggestions would come through the app to try and help the user overcome the impulse, situation or urge.

The ultimate goal of these projects looks to improve the effectiveness of eating disorder treatment. Researchers feel that by creating an online portal from which clients can complement their existing treatment, interventions will be more accessible and more effective. The Research Council is hopeful that these apps will impact public health in a meaningful way.