Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center partners with U. of Alabama in $2.5M NIH study

Can a wearable device that monitors what you eat help you lose weight?

Researchers at The Miriam Hospital, in collaboration with several universities around the country, will seek to answer that question in a clinical trial funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

Tonmoy Ghosh, a doctoral student at the University of Alabama, models a high-tech ingestion monitor inside a campus laboratory
Image/The University of Alabama

Graham Thomas, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist with The Miriam’s Weight Control and Diabetes Researchis the co-principal investigator on the project. He will be using an ingenious device developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alabama to test the technology with adults with overweight or obesity.

“The hope is that this technology will give people a new, less burdensome way to monitor and take control of their eating,” said Dr. Thomas.

The device, clipped to prescription or nonprescription eyeglasses, includes a tiny, high-definition camera to photograph food as well as sensors that monitor chewing. The sensors accurately detect food intake and trigger the camera to record what was eaten and to measure when, how much and how fast the wearer eats.

Dr. Edward Sazonov, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alabama and co-principal investigator, designed the patent-pending device, which he calls the Automatic Ingestion Monitor, or AIM.

“Changing eating behavior enough to achieve and maintain long-term weight loss is elusive. We’re seeking to determine if a device that adapts to your individual eating habits can change that,” Sazonov said.

Thomas said that Sazonov was looking to test his device and reached out to him about a collaboration because of his expertise in the science of health behaviors.

“My work has focused on the use of technology to understand and promote healthy behaviors, particularly those related to obesity,” Thomas said. “So this is right up my alley.”

The grant to the University of Alabama, via the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, enables the researchers to test the device in a clinical trial over four years. An initial round of funding was awarded this fall.

About half of the patients that will be enrolled in the study will be recruited in Rhode Island by Thomas, an associate professor in the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital and Brown University.    

During the clinical trial, the device’s built-in computer will communicate with the wearer’s smartphone and, when necessary, trigger the phone to send carefully designed messages suggesting modifications to the wearer’s eating behaviors.

Work by other researchers has shown that tracking what you eat by hand is one of the most powerful strategies for weight control, but it can be burdensome, tedious and error prone. Electronic fitness trackers have proven popular, so for those open to a high-tech wearable method to help in modifying their behaviors, the device could prove effective. 

“The key to this particular technology is to learn individual eating behaviors and then attempt to provide personalized feedback to modify those behaviors,” Sazonov said.

Measuring food intake, which previous studies show the technology can do accurately, is important. But it’s only part of the story.

“The way you eat is as important as what you eat. We are also looking at the rates of ingestion. We want to slow down and be more mindful about our eating,” Sazonov said. “Every person is different in when they eat, what they eat, how much they eat and how long they eat. We use machine learning to create a model of these individual eating patterns. After we learn the individual eating patterns, we see how it can be manipulated by suggesting small changes to reduce the total amount of energy consumed.”