Hi-tech sensors aim to help prevent obesity

Overweight man and woman Obesity causes 2.8 million deaths around the world each year

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A range of hi-tech sensors that can measure food intake and activity in order to assess obesity risks is to be funded by the European Union.

Dubbed Splendid, the project aims to persuade youngsters to adopt healthier lifestyles and be more aware of their eating and exercise habits.

It is part of a push to use technology to create preventative healthcare.

Obesity causes an estimated 2.8 million deaths among adults around the world every year.

"The idea is that we try to investigate ways to prevent obesity and eating disorders," said Prof Anastasios Delopoulos, the project co-ordinator who works for the department of electrical and computer engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.

The system will be tested on around 200 secondary school students in Sweden and another set of children in the Netherlands.

A mandometer One of the sensors will monitor how quickly people eat

Sensors will be used to measure the speed at which food is eaten as well as how food is chewed.

The time taken to consume food is one of the risk factors in obesity, according to Prof Delopoulos.

It will be measured using a mandometer, from Swedish firm AB Mando, which is currently used in a handful of clinics set up to treat eating disorders.

The sensor comprises a scale connected to a portable computer or a smartphone. A plate of food is put on the scale and the rate at which it leaves the plate is recorded, with an audible warning if it is being eaten too quickly for the person to realise they are full.

Swiss firm CSEM is developing the other two sensors that will be used in the project. ActiSmile is a wearable sensor, which rewards the wearer with a smiley face when enough exercise has been done.

The firm is also designing an acoustic sensor, which will take the form of a wearable microphone, and record how the user chews food.

Users will also input their own data, including how full they feel after a meal as well as daily intake and activity logs.

All the data will be processed and run through algorithms which will assess the risks for obesity and eating disorders.

In the later stages of the trial, the system will be used to help change the way at-risk youngsters eat and exercise.

"The goal is to modify eating and activity behaviour of individuals in a personalised way," said Prof Delopoulos.

"A medical expert will assign goals, such as to eat more slowly or adopt more activity and the sensors will monitor whether the individual succeeds," he added.

Daniel Kraft is a doctor and executive director of FutureMed, a healthcare education programme aimed at teaching medical professionals about new technologies.

He thinks that sensors will increasingly be integrated into healthcare.

"From connected scales to sensors that can track heart rate and activity levels... the patient can be empowered to understand their healthcare data," he said.

"It brings you to an era of healthcare rather than sick care," he added.

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