January 6, 2010

Gadget Could Help Curb Childhood Obesity

A study in England has shown that a computerized, interactive weighing device that helps kids keep track of how much and how quickly they are eating may be the future in helping to prevent childhood obesity.

Known as the Mandometer, the medical gadget weighs a plate of food at the beginning of a meal and then measures and tracks the rate at which the food is being consumed, giving voice signals to slow down if the child is scarfing down his food too quickly.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently released the results of a 12-month trial of the device with 106 obese children. 

The researchers said that their findings were encouraging, noting that after 1 year, the eating speed of the children fell by 11 percent compared to 4 percent in a control group, while the children using the Mandometer also weighed less and ate smaller portions.

Health experts have long emphasized the correlation between rapid eating and obesity, but in recent years biologists have begun gaining a better understanding of the biochemistry behind the phenomenon.

Scientists say that eating too quickly likely overrides the body's internal satiety-signaling system that lets the brain know when the stomach is full.

Many dietary experts suspect that parents in the Western hemisphere "” who often train their children to "eat every last bite" on their plates "” may be helping their child's body to override this natural bio-signaling system.

Researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institute originally designed the Mandometer to help patients with the eating disorder bulimia to pace their binging habits.

The device works by creating a digital graph of the rate at which food is being consumed from the plate and then comparing it with an "ideal" graph that is pre-programmed into the machine by a nutritionist.  The machine also talks to the eater, reminding them when they need to slow down.

Scientists at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children heard of the Swedish-designed gadget and were inspired to try it out on obese youth.

The projects chief researcher Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield believes that the Mandometer proved a significant benefit in retraining children to eat more slowly and consequently less.

"It really did seem to help them," he said. "Their portion sizes decreased by a seventh. Even though this may not sound a lot, it is enough to make a difference."

"And the improvement seems to be durable because it continued six months after the trial finished," he added.

Dr. Hamilton-Shield advises that people spend a minimum of 10 minutes eating a meal and adds that it is much healthier to sit at a table instead of in front of the television.

"What tends to happen when we eat alone or while watching the TV is we eat more quickly. Then we miss the signals that tell us we are full up and to stop eating."

Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum believes that while the Mandometer could be a useful tool in helping obese children return to normalcy, it could be avoided altogether if parents would just teach their children healthy eating habits from the start.

"Parents should be able to teach their children to do this themselves. The tragedy is [that] they do not," she said.

"We have far too many children eating far too much and piling on the pounds, causing future problems not only for themselves but also for the NHS (Britain's National Health Service)."


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