This series looks at some of the ways in which technology has impacted obesity (and vice versa) over the past ten years or so. In 2014 there was news from Chicago about a pilot program for 6th-grade students, called “Healthy School Meals Realized through Technology (SMART) Schools.” The preliminary steps began with qualitative research done by Canyon Ranch Institute “that included focus groups and interviews with students, parents, teachers and staff.” The intention was to figure out how to help people of all ages boost their levels of health literacy.
A school nutrition software company called A+ Café helped to develop technology that enabled preventive medicine experts to know what each child chose for breakfast and for lunch. This information was then matched up with the children’s weight gains or losses. The goal was to design a way to track the kids’ food choices, for the purpose of tailoring individualized reports. One of the principal investigators, associate professor of preventive medicine Brad Appelhans, Ph.D., told the press,
The overall goal of this project is to develop a technology-based system to track student food choices in the school setting and be able to provide this information to parents and teachers along with some evidence-based strategies to help children adopt a healthy lifestyle. This could be a valuable component of future school-and-family-based child obesity interventions.
Members of the cafeteria staff, equipped with touch-screen monitors, scanned the students’ ID cards to record each food item they picked out. Every week, each child’s comprehensive report was forwarded to the grownups. It would reveal things like the nutritional and caloric values of the various items, and also make recommendations toward more suitable future choices.
Technology was used with the end goal of tailoring educational materials according to individual needs and inclinations, and to guide the children and parents to develop more effective self-management skills.
As always, there were ideological differences, as some Americans objected to the snitch factor. Did these kids, in their final year of elementary school, have any say in the matter? Is there a rights issue?
Around the same time in Mississippi, where 43% of the kids were overweight or obese, pediatric endocrinologist Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD made known her opinion of an interactive health-coaching application marketed by Weight Watchers (newly christened WW):
I’ve personally used the WW app with the desired outcome of weight loss, and found the program much easier to follow than others, with long-lasting lessons of incorporating more fruits and vegetables, for instance.
In a state with such a paucity of health literacy, anything that works at all sounds pretty good, and some things raise even higher expectations. And advice alone “doesn’t provide the structure that families seek.” They are asked to keep food journals, and ponder the entries and the possible relationship to unwanted body weight.
Dr. Lilley expected the medical community to be excited about the app, which utilized a program called Kurbo that had originated at Stanford University. She characterized the program as well-researched and successful, and as “a free app for children over age 8 that gives support for weight loss and healthy food choices, with coaching available for a fee” which apparently was $70 a month, a lot for Mississippi. But in a backlash both swift and severe, critics castigated it for not being person-centered, and…
[…] social media was ablaze with expletive-laden missives against the perception that children were being told by society that their size determined their worth.
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Source: “Two Chicago Cafeterias to Use Technology to Create a Healthy Eating ‘Report Card’ on Students’ Food Choices and Eating Habits to Help Prevent Childhood Obesity,” Newswise.com, 08/21/14
Source: “Weight Loss App for Kids: Backlash ‘Swift and Severe’,” Medscape.com, 08/27/19
Image by Uncle Saiful/CC BY-ND 2.0