Field Notes

Research Identifies Barriers in Tracking Meals

Eating healthfully is a challenge on its own, so technology should ease that burden, not increase it, according to new research from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. Researchers studied how mobile-based food journals integrate into everyday life and specific challenges to using food-journaling technology. Their research suggests how future designs might make it easier and more effective.

The research study uncovered three problem areas: barriers to reliable food entry, negative nudges in current food journal apps, and challenges in social features. The findings resulted from data collected in a survey of 141 current and former food loggers as well as analysis of 5,526 public posts on the community forums of mobile-based MyFitnessPal, FatSecret, and CalorieCount.

“Community contributions to the databases allow journalers to publish nutritional entries themselves and create a diverse food base from which to pick, but they also raise concerns about reliability,” says Edison Thomaz, a researcher on the study and PhD candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Georgia Tech.

Some users said logging meals took too much effort and was time consuming. They sometimes loosely followed recipes or only ate partial portion sizes, making it difficult to log meals. Another issue was that food databases contained inaccuracies, common foods that were missing, or had multiple listings for a single food because of user-generated listings.

Researchers found that not all foods are created equal when it comes to logging. On a seven-point Likert scale, packaged foods and fast food were a breeze to log (6.5 and 6.3 mean scores), while counting up finger foods at a friend’s party took dedication (3.2 and 2.9 mean scores).

This made the mobile journals themselves less effective, with some participants straying from their goals or eating the same thing every day to ease the logging ritual. As one respondent put it, it was easier to “scan a code on some processed stuff and be done with it.”

Participants also wanted to develop social connections around food goals. Encouragement of goal attainment and mutual support helped strengthen journaling habits. Conversely, when people received no comments, had online friends stop journaling, or had comparatively less progress than others, it negatively impacted their food-tracking goals.

The findings led to several recommendations, including one for designing goal-specific systems. “Food journals are an important method for tracking food consumption and can support a variety of goals, including weight loss, healthful food choices, detecting deficiencies, identifying allergies, and determining foods that trigger other symptoms,” says James Fogarty, a researcher on the study and associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

“Instead of attempting to capture the elusive ‘everything,’ the results suggest creating a diversity of journal designs to support specific goals,” Fogarty adds.

Reputation systems were suggested to allow users to filter for specific needs (eg, tracking sodium intake) or vote on accuracy of entries. Also a priority: streamlining databases with similar foods and providing context for food entry, such as indicating restaurant items or vegan meals.

The results also have led to separate research by team members to implement new journaling solutions. Georgia Tech researchers are testing the feasibility of using a mobile device’s built-in microphone to capture ambient sounds related to eating that, when recognized by the mobile device, nudge users to log their food. Washington researchers are using photo-based journaling to augment or replace methods focused on detailed nutritional input in an attempt to remove or reduce barriers to journaling.

— Source: Georgia Institute of Technology


Caloric Restriction: A Fountain of Youth for Aging Muscles?

Calorie restriction has long been studied as a way to extend lifespan in animals. It‘s been associated with the ability to reduce the risks of cardiovascular and other diseases and to improve overall health. Now, researchers at Chang Gung University in Taiwan have found that calorie restriction also can be beneficial to muscles, improving muscle metabolism and mass at an important time: during middle age. The article “Late-onset Caloric Restriction Alters Skeletal Muscle Metabolism by Modulating Pyruvate Metabolism” was published ahead of print in the American Journal of Physiology — Endocrinology and Metabolism.

“To date, caloric restriction (CR) is the only nonpharmaceutical and nongenetic strategy that increases the lifespan of animals and provides health benefits,” the research team wrote. “Regarding skeletal muscle, an organ that’s critical for movement and fuel metabolism, studies have reported that CR attenuates age-related muscle loss.”

Calorie restriction is thought to have a protective effect on muscle cells and may help cells better use antioxidants, avoid damage caused by free radicals, and function better. While studies that observed the effects of lifelong calorie restriction have shown mixed results in animals of different ages, recent studies have suggested that age may play a role in how CR affects individual animals. The research team hypothesized that because CR can help reprogram metabolism, the most benefit can be reaped from aging muscles in which cellular metabolism is impaired.

Researchers focused on two pathways that produce energy in muscles, glycolysis (sugar metabolism) and mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) in both young and middle-aged rats that were fed either a normal diet or a calorie-restricted diet. In the 14-week study, rats on the calorie-restricted diet received 10% calorie restriction in the first week, 25% restriction in the second week, and 40% restriction for the remaining 12 weeks. The control rats received no calorie restriction. After 14 weeks, the researchers studied changes in the rats’ muscles.

“We investigated whether CR reprogrammed muscle metabolism and whether this improvement was associated with the observed increase in muscle mass. In addition, we examined whether the CR-induced changes were age-dependent,” the researchers wrote.
Not surprisingly, the middle-aged rats had less muscle mass than did the young rats. However, while 14 weeks of calorie restriction didn’t significantly affect the middle-aged rats, it reduced muscle mass in the young rats. Calorie restriction slowed the glycolytic rate in the muscles and increased the cells’ dependency for OXPHOS versus glycolysis in older rats, which was linked to improvement of normalized muscle mass. The team also found that “14 weeks of CR reprogrammed cellular metabolism, where the relative contribution of OXPHOS and glycolysis in muscles of middle-aged rats with CR was similar to that in muscles of young rats.”

— Source: American Physiological Society