Worcester Polytechnic Institute and University of Connecticut Researchers Create App to Cut Down on Overeating

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and the University of Connecticut (UConn) are collaborating on a smartphone app aimed at helping users manage their overeating challenges in three key ways: by tracking eating patterns, providing interventions, and helping change behavior. The app—and its distinctive methodology—showed tremendous promise in an early pilot study.

A paper on the research was recently presented at the annual symposium for the American Medical Informatics Association, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the development of information technology to benefit healthcare. The WPI/UConn research report noted that a user study of 16 participants, all over the age of 18, overweight, and not necessarily trying to lose weight, showed positive results. At the end of the month-long pilot, nine of the participants lost an average of five pounds, three weighed the same, and four gained an average of two pounds.

The paper’s co-authors include the project’s principal investigators: Bengisu Tulu, associate professor in WPI’s Foisie Business School; Carolina Ruiz, associate professor of computer science at WPI; and Sherry Pagoto, professor of allied health sciences at the University of Connecticut and director of UConn’s Center for mHealth and Social Media.

The research team’s three-pronged approach is an important differentiator in a crowded marketplace. According to a 2017 report in the International Journal of Obesity, there are nearly 29,000 weight-related apps on the market, with most focused only on tracking physical activity, calories, and body weight. The drawback with most weight-loss apps is that they are burdensome to use and don’t focus on actually trying to change the user’s behavior.

The WPI/UConn app, dubbed SlipBuddy, is built to do just that. In addition to tracking stress and eating, it’s a personalized intervention system built through the integration of behavioral strategies and technologies like mobile devices, machine learning, and text mining. The work is aimed at helping users identify what triggers them to overeat and inserting new stimuli that, instead, trigger healthy behaviors.

The app’s name, SlipBuddy, recognizes that it’s easy to “slip up” when trying to change unhealthy behaviors. Its reminders help users keep accountable to a “buddy” that suggests better behaviors in a nonjudgmental way.

The app was built for the Android platform, but eventually will be available for iOS devices, as well. While it is still in the research phase, the researchers say the app could be ready for release as early as 2019.

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