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New wrist-worn device tracks bites to target obesity epidemic

New wrist-worn device tracks bites to target obesity epidemic

Posting in Food

Like footsteps measured on a pedometer, a new tracking tool aims to count our bites of food. The Bite Counter uses sensor technology to track wrist movement -- and potentially prevent mindless eating.

Like footsteps measured on a pedometer, a new tracking tool aims to count our bites of food. The Bite Counter, developed by Clemson University researchers, uses sensor technology to track wrist movement -- and potentially prevent mindless eating.

I spoke last week with Adam Hoover, a computer engineering professor who developed the device with psychology professor Eric Muth. Below are excerpts from our interview.

How does the Bite Counter work and what does it look like?

It's worn like a watch. It tracks the motion that your wrist makes while you're eating. As you go to take a bite of food, the device senses the pattern of motion and it counts the number of bites you've taken.

It records that you've taken a bite of food, but not how many calories are in that bite?

That's correct. It's important to note that the calories in a single bite of food really don't matter. What matters is how many calories you have over a longer period of time -- a meal, a day, a week. If you think about a common guideline to losing weight, it's an aim to lose about a pound a week. What you do in one bite just doesn't have a big impact on that. What matters is how many bites you had through the whole week.

Is the Bite Counter meant to combat mindless eating?

It's to give you a measurement tool. If you go exercise, there are lots of ways to measure how much you exercise. You can have a clock that measures the number of minutes. You can have a tachometer that measures how fast you're going. You can have an odometer that measures how far you went. If you think about measuring how much you eat, there are no tools. You have to read labels or try to guess. This is a tool, not a diet. It's a tool to measure how much you ate.

How did you go about developing this?

It developed out of some of our tracking system research. We've been working on military projects for a number of years trying to monitor soldiers for their fitness and activities. We migrated to a more general health problem, which is the obesity epidemic, and how much people are eating. We thought to ourselves: How can we begin to develop something that can combat that problem?

Had you already developed this technology for other applications?

Sort of. We wanted to figure out what people do when they eat and how we can help them measure that. We instrumented people with sensors and things we already used to track other types of problems. We discovered this 'wrist roll' principle. It's related to eating on a consistent basis.

What's the 'wrist roll' principle?

If you think about tracking your wrist motion, you're probably looking at how far your wrist moves. If you move your arm around, we would call that linear motion. That's not what we're measuring. We're measuring how much it rotates. If you hold your arm out and rotate it, your wrist is rolling.

Here's the simple test: Take your hand now and pretend your picking up an apple. Your fingers are probably aimed downward. Now you've picked up the apple and you're bringing it toward your mouth. Your hand is going to start to rotate. It's not the distance that your wrist travels to your mouth. It's the rotation of your hand that we're measuring.

How accurate is the device?

It's about 90 percent accurate in counting bites. We've just gotten preliminary data relating that to calories per meal. The correlation is above 0.6. Our university website has a graph that shows some data. It shows how well it relates calories to what our instrument is measuring.

Is the Bite Counter available commercially now?

A professional model is available now. It's intended to be used by nutritionists, weight-loss clinics, places where you'd have somebody providing expertise. Remember, this is just a tool to measure how much you eat. It's still important to have someone giving you good nutrition and exercise advice.

In about a year, we hope to have a model for sale in places like Walmart and other department stores. That will be for the general consumer.

What's the next step?

What's next is to continue to do research to validate how well it measures calories and to eventually make the device in a form suitable for the consumer.

Do you have anything else to add?

We're manufacturing entirely in the United States, specifically within the state of South Carolina.

Photo: Adam Hoover and Eric Muth wearing the Bite Counter

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure