It is estimated that around 20 million people in the EU struggle with eating disorders. This has an associated annual cost of 1 trillion euros and in the EU, there is often a long delay associated with accessing and securing quality treatment. More recently, researchers, medical providers and treatment providers in the EU have sought out smart tech in an attempt to speed up this process and better address treatment needs.
Researchers, supported by the EU, would like to develop smartphone technology (The NEWEAT Project) to be used both prior to and during treatment to track progress and trends. Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, a number of mechanisms had to be addressed when developing the technology: over-or-under-restrained eating, levels of food cravings, varying response to stress and emotional challenges. Additionally, a number of external factors such as the influence of social media and advertising on mental health had to be taken into account as well. A University of Salzburg researcher within the Eating Behavior Laboratory found that specific behaviors, stress, and emotions impact eating patterns. When stressed, some individuals will decrease their “eating for pleasure” while those with bulimic tendencies will increase their pleasure eating when stressed.
By using neurocognitive measures in the laboratory as well as practice-oriented surveys distributed to smartphones, the team aimed to identify how different people are guided by their own unique experiences of emotion, frustration, stress, or boredom eating. This preliminary research aimed to identify which mood and emotion states and other mechanisms should be addressed and tracked by the app. This app, currently being used for research (PsyDiary) will be expanded for therapeutic intervention purposes down the line.
The app aims to bring understanding to disordered eating behavior patterns and trends and identify precursors for overeating and binge eating. The app will eventually have the ability to intervene before the overeating event actually takes place. The alternative would be true for restrictive behaviors. The NEWEAT study has found that an individual will experience food cravings throughout the day in peaks and valleys, forming an “M” shape. This results in the craving for nourishing foods such as fruits in the morning and higher fat, carbohydrate, sweeter foods as the day progresses. As the app’s awareness of such patterns increases, the app will be able to offer timely interventions. The team would also like the app to have the ability to identify a situation that could potentially trigger a compulsion or craving and signal the individual to eat something else instead. Additionally, the app would be able to offer concrete advice to the user to help them overcome the temptation they may feel and/or deal with the stimulus that triggered the impulse.