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Diet & Nutrition

Mobile App Records Erratic Eating Habits

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner? For too many of us, the three meals of the day go more like: office meeting pastry, mid-afternoon energy drink, and midnight pizza. In Cell Metabolism on September 24 2015, Salk Institute scientists presented daily food and beverage intake data collected from over 150 participants of a mobile research app over three weeks. They show that a majority of people eat for 15 hours or longer, with less than a quarter of the day’s calories being consumed before noon and over a third consumed after 6 p.m.

A release from the publisher explains that the purpose of the app is to pilot a way to objectively study the effects of timing food intake in humans. Primed with evidence of how long people eat each day, senior author Satchidananda Panda–an associate professor in the Salk Institute’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory–along with first author Shubhroz Gill were able to test whether reducing this daily duration impacts health. In addition to cutting out some bad habits, the authors hypothesized that a timed feeding schedule could prevent “metabolic jetlag”–when differences in day-to-day or weekday/weekend meal times cause metabolic organs to become out of sync with the body’s overall circadian rhythms.

Past experiments in mice (10.1016/j.cmet.2014.11.001) from Panda’s lab have shown that changing eating duration could protect against obesity and disease. The release quotes Panda as saying, “Our research on the benefits of time-restricted feeding in mice elicited mixed feedback; while several people thought humans do eat randomly and the approach might have translational significance, others said that we largely eat three meals everyday within a 10-12 hour interval. Surprisingly, we were unable to find a convincing publication that investigated when people eat,” he adds. “Most nutrition surveys elicit responses to questions about breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, but there is very little effort on an unbiased evidence-driven approach.”

Gill and Panda’s next step was to design a mobile app that could be used to collect, analyze, and interpret patterns of food intake in humans. They kept the app simple, only requiring users to send pictures of everything they ate or drank, whether it was an entire water bottle or a few bites of a cookie. Each click also captured metadata (such as the location where food was consumed) and recorded a timestamp. Food data were not stored in the app, and reminders were sent about once a day to sustain compliance.

Volunteers for the study were recruited through online and print ads around the San Diego area. While the app was free to download, it could only be used by individuals who came into the lab to sign an informed consent form. Users were healthy males and females between the ages of 21 and 55 who were not actively managing their diet and who did not go through any weight loss program in the past 6 months.