Could fitness trackers help us understand binge eating? UNC scientists to find out

Binge eating disorder almost always occurs in secret while an appearance of “normal” eating is often maintained in front of others.

At least one person dies from an eating disorder every hour, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). 

Could your fitness tracker help scientists better understand these deadly disorders? 

Scientists at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine want to find out. 

Researchers are planning to recruit 1,000 adults for the study and equip each with Apple Watches donated by the tech giant. 

“At least 30 million people of all ages and genders” have an eating disorder in the United States, according to ANAD, and eating disorders “have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness”. 

The study, called “BEGIN”, which stands for “Binge Eating Genetics Initiative”, aims to better understand overeating, specifically binge-eating disorder and bulimia nervosa – which is a disorder when someone overeats and then purges or exercises excessively, according to the university. 

Cynthia Bulik, director of the Center for Excellence for Eating Disorders at UNC, will lead the team of researchers looking to “develop better treatments for the millions of people who suffer from these illnesses”. 

It's possible the watch's onboard heart-rate monitor could help predict binge eating episodes by recording spikes in heart rate right before, according to the university. 

“We need to collect data from a whole lot of people to see what it looks like,” Bulik said in a statement, according to CNBC. “We want to know if it has a biological and behavioural signature.” 

People who chose to participate in the study will use a mobile app, “Recovery Record” which will help them record their “mood, food and goals for 30 days”, according to the university. 

When participants sense an urge or temptation, they can tap “Urges" in the app on their watch and record how they feel based on predetermined options such as “urge to binge”, “urge to overeat”, “urge to meal skip” or “urge to restrict intake”, according to a video tutorial for the app. 

Then they can rate how strongly they feel those urges from “not at all” to “overbearing” and the time they felt that urge. The app then provides a strategy that could be helpful, the video tutorial shows. 

Participants can go through a similar process to record their behaviours, such as when they actually overeat or skip a meal. The app also allows people to record their feelings by choosing an emoji, according to the video. 

The app has an option for “skills” which can provide options to distract the user from acting on an urge or delay an uncomfortable emotion, such as showing cute gifs of baby polar bears, the video tutorial shows. 

Users also will be asked to record their diets and reflect on the causes of their food choices. 

Participants also will provide a sample of their saliva and their bodily bacteria so scientists can better understand their physical makeup as it relates to the disorders, according to the university. – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service 


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