The Medical Futurist | 8 min | 21 November 2019

Obesity rates have nearly doubled in the last 20 years. Only in England, 13 million people over the age of 16 were considered obese in 2017, Daily Mail reported. According to an analysis of government data, the NHS spent a staggering £1.075 billion on type 2 diabetes treatment alone. And since obesity is linked to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and some cancers, most of us live in countries where obesity kills more people than malnutrition. It’s preventable. It’s treatable. And yet numbers keep rising. So, what’s happening and what’s the solution?

Let’s get digital!

Ok, we may not have supernatural psychic abilities, but we’re pretty sure you’re reading this article while sitting. The technological innovations of the last century have led to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle (we only spend on average 3 hours a day on our feet) and a decrease in sport and other physical activities. This, combined with the food environmental changes, the aggressive marketing of fast food brands and sodas, and consequentially increased caloric intake play a huge role in the global obesity epidemic.

And yet the key to turning this alarming situation around lies in technology, especially in digital health. Wearable sensors, gamification, educational support, and online counseling could change the challenging journey of weight loss with monitoring psychological, physical parameters, and offering personalized advice to patients. So what weapons can digital health technology use against obesity?

Weapons of mass destruction

1. Fitness trackers!

It’s the first thing that comes to your mind hearing the words digital, health and gadget, right? These wearables, e.g. Gymwatch, or Polar chest strap, like a personal trainer, can present valuable information on the exercises and provide tips and tricks on ways to improve. Unlike a personal trainer (except if they’re really enthusiastic) these devices measure vital signs as well.

Measuring data properly about our lifestyle helps keep track of any changes and more importantly, the impact of lifestyle changes on our weight in general. Without data, it’s incredibly hard to do the weight loss journey on your own.

2. Sleep trackers

Sleep is for the weak, right? Nope! A good night’s sleep has many health benefits and without proper rest people are more likely to gain weight, eat more and be less motivated. For those who’ve never tried using a sleep tracker, we recommend Sleep As Android first- it’s a great app with valuable information on REM, light and deep sleep phases. And for a sleep tracking watch we would choose Fitbit Ionic.

3. Mental health tech

While exposure to stress for just a short period of time may be beneficial for motivation and creativity, chronic stress has a negative impact on health. Its effect on metabolism makes it harder to lose weight, so monitoring mental health could be a game changer for the obese. For stress relief and meditation, both PIP or Headspace are awesome options.

4. Smart scales

Keeping track of weight, BMI, body fat percentage and lean mass helps people understand the effects of sport and diet on the body, which is crucial for progress. Smart scales, like Fitbit Aria 2 could be the frenemy we all need.

5. Food scanners

It’s so easy to think you’re consuming something healthy until you look at the articles, advertisements and the conflicting opinions of professionals, family, and friends. Eating is an essential part of our lives and yet we can become so confused. Luckily food scanners are here to make life a bit easier: for example, Nima can measure micronutrients and ingredients for a more conscious dinner.

6. Microbiome tests

Did you know you carry about 2-3 kilograms of bacteria in your intestines? These microorganisms not only influence how you process food but they affect your immune system and cognitive functions as well. Microbiome tests can indicate change in balance and composition (and ultimately function). Some companies even help with recommendations on what to eat for a healthier life.

7. Blood tests

They measure quite a few important markers of overall health. And since obese people have higher risk of certain diseases, screening is important to steer clear of comorbidity. There are options now to do this from the comfort of your home: for example, imaware. It’s designed for initial disease screening or monitoring bioindicators, plus it only takes a few minutes.

+1. Our favorite: Coaching

“Sustainable change can’t happen in a vacuum, and those living with obesity who want to manage their weight are in need of personalized human coaching to help them change their habits, so they can lose weight for good.” said Saeju Jeong, CEO and co-founder of Noom. Personalized, web-based support pays attention to the fact, that while the physiology is basically the same in every case, patients have very different mindsets when it comes to weight loss. And focusing on these differences is the limitation of AI at the moment.

Automation may be great for the majority of tasks, but the health coaches are the backbones of these apps. These coaches aren’t part of the traditional healthcare system, but they have a good amount of data on the patient, and as trained professionals, they are able to give support based on facts and the customer’s needs.

Apps like NoomLiva (focusing on people living with chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues), and HMR can inspire changes in everyday life and they offer to act as a personal assistant with daily coaching, education, and group-based intervention. Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical company, announced a tie-up with Noom to battle obesity.

They plan on combining behavior change programmes with Novo’s expertise in chronic diseases. Noom wants to understand the customer base more and get a clearer picture of the challenges and milestones of people trying to change their lifestyle.  With the use of AI and behavioural coaching, people can expect the cost of treatment to drop, and the access and anonymity of care to increase. Oh, and saving time!

(The non pizza) take-away

We know that finding the right digital health technology is a struggle. The Amazon Wearable marketplace has so many wearable health devices it makes even harder to choose. A bunch of technological problems might arise: the device requires constant attention, needs to be charged constantly, Bluetooth connections unpair randomly and synchronization might be a nightmare. And when you finally “master” technology, it takes the skills of an IT guru combined with that of a trained physician to interpret the data.

Some makers of healthcare wearables are better than others at providing insight into how to live better instead of dumping meaningless data in the users’ lap. Not to mention how hard it can be to form new habits to keep the weight off for good.

new study found that web-based weight loss programs have more of a short-term result among obese individuals. Digital health companies need to shift the focus from business and technical research to behavioral sciences and understanding the needs, difficulties and goals of their customers. The numbers of people who take their health into their own hands are on the rise and they need guidance and all the help they can get to see a clear picture of their actual state and their possibilities. After all, the only effective antidote to obesity is lifestyle change. Challenging, no doubt. But with the support of traditional treatment combined with new, digital tools, we hope to see the number of obese people decrease.

We could go on and on for hours but probably shouldn’t – if you’re interested in our favorite health sensors, Check out our cool infographic of the most exciting gadgets you can get.