NIH awards $2M for development of stress eating app

By Aditi Pai
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Co-lead Sherry Pagoto Sherry Pagoto, Associate Professor of Medicine, UMMS

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute have developed an app that helps people understand why they are overeating. The team was awarded $2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for this project.

The app, called Relax, is designed for patients who are in clinical programs to lose weight and manage stress. Relax uses text inputs, barcode scanning, and GPS technology to track the patient's eating patterns, daily activities, exercise, mood, and stress inducing events. After a patient enters their food data into the app, they will receive an itemized list of foods they ate that the app will compare with the times of day they identified as high-stress moments. This way, patients can understand the relationship between food intake and their stress levels. The app can then give patients advice. For example, it can offer nutrition suggestions based on the patient's dietary choices or it can suggest stress-reduction exercises. 

“Imagine a person driving into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant, at a certain time of day, and getting prompted with a message asking them to think about what they are feeling and whether or not it is the right time to eat,” study co-lead and associate professor at WPI Bengisu Tulu explained in a statement.

The app also sends data to a web-based tool that clinicians can view. The clinician-facing portal will provide visual displays of the patient's information and feedback reports.

“We too often think of clinical problems in isolation and develop interventions focused on one problem,” study co-lead and associate professor of medicine at UMMS, Sherry Pagoto said in a statement. “The reality is that patients more often than not experience multiple issues that are very entangled. Just like clinical care, apps need to address the ‘whole patient’ to be maximally effective.”

Development of the app will take three years. In the first phase of the project, the researchers will identify the clinical and technical requirements for the mobile app and web-based clinician tool. In the second phase, researchers will develop the technology and perform a usability analysis. The first two phases are expected to take a year and a half. In the final phase, the team will pilot the app with patients at UMMS and analyze whether the app has an impact on the weight loss program's costs.