As the saying goes, we are what we eat. But studying exactly how people consume, use and burn calories – and which foods impact them and how – has been historically difficult due to many simple reasons, including everything from inaccurate calorie counting to plain old forgetfulness or even dishonest reporting. Accordingly, a number of startups have risen up to develop wearable devices that do all that work for people. But validating whether connected devices actually can passive track caloric intake has become something of a sticking point in recent years.
Researchers at the University of California Davis want to figure out if it's possible, and so they have initiated a five-year agreement with Healbe, makers of the GoBe 2 Smart Life Band fitness tracker. The band, which retails at $179, uses the company’s Flow technology, which claims to automatically track a range of metrics including human caloric intake, hydration and emotional state. Dr. Sara Schaefer said she was intrigued by the potential.
“I hadn’t come across any other wearable device that was designed to track caloric intake, and especially one that was made to passively track how much people consume through non-invasive technology,” Schaefer, who is the associate director of children’s health at UC Davis’s Foods for Health Institute, told MobiHealthNews. “We’ve done a lot of programs with wearable devices, but they are usually physical activity devices, and my main motivation for contacting Healbe was for the additional capabilities of not just getting metabolism, but energy intake. They are the only ones I have seen that have that ability.”
Theoretically, at least, Schaefer acknowledged. There's still some debate about whether the device works, and Healbe has certainly taken some heat for putting the marketing horse before the validation cart. The company raised just over a million dollars on Indiegogo in 2014, and launched in early 2015, but they were subject to much scrutiny by PandoDaily, who pointed out, among other things, a lack of evidence that the device actually tracks calories or nutrition as advertised. In January of 2015, it finally launched (or at least sent out test devices to a number of journalists) to mixed reviews. Even those that proclaimed the calorie tracking function accurate found the device buggy, and others considered the calorie tracking features a total bust (in addition to finding the device buggy).
“We know it’s actually a consumer device, not a scientific research device, so we are interested in using it to see how it could be applied to scientific research,” Schaefer said. “It’s a benefit to both parties: it will let us know how these sorts of consumer wearables could be used in part of a personal management and educational tool, and it will help Healbe learn how they can make adjustments to their algorithms to be more accurate.”
According to Healbe, the company’s patented Flow technology uses three of the device’s six onboard sensors, including an accelerometer, a Piezo sensor and an impedance sensor, the latter of which sends high and low-frequency signals through the users’ skin to continuously calculate the volume of water (which is bound to glucose) entering cells within their bloodstreams. Over a 24-hour period, the process claims to determines calorie and nutrition intake, as well as energy balance and hydration levels.
"This collaboration with UC Davis is very important to us, offering not only the opportunity to continue to develop our Healbe Flow technology and future GoBe consumer devices, but to explore new approaches and applications for our health monitoring solutions,” Healbe CEO and cofounder Artem Shipitsyn said in a statement. "It is very gratifying to partner with this well-respected institution to pursue our mission to help people live healthier lives by better understanding their bodies and the consequences of their lifestyle habits."
In that way, the five-year-long collaboration will not be carried out as a fully designed study, Schaefer said, but a research partnership that will take different forms as data is gathered and technology changes. The Smart Band will be used to collect and analyze data based on nine health parameters – calorie intake, calories burned, energy balance, water balance, stress level, emotional state, heart rate, sleep quality, and steps taken per day.
“Over time, we are interested in expanding the research to focus on precision solutions for more targeted groups; different demographic groups with different metabolic parameters,” she said. “One might be athletes, one might be children, one might be people just interested in learning about calories in, calories out and protein intake. We’re looking at all the different possibilities.”
While Healbe may not be proven to be that standout consumer-tracking device that can passively collect caloric intake and expenditure data for researchers just yet, Schaefer is hopeful that such wearables will play a vital role in nutritional research.
“The way things are today, you can really look at it from a couple of different perspectives,” she said. “There is a lot of criticism as people have tried to integrate wearable devices into labs and there are questions of accuracy because these are consumer devices and it really depends on how they are being used. So we are interested in seeing how we can start to use them in ways that will reveal fluctuations and patterns, and we’re seeing how advanced capabilities that allow the market to evolve and develop are doing the same thing for science. Collaborations like these are what are going to enable devices to get better over time.”