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A device that curbs speed eating could help obese children and adolescents cut the fat

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Wolfing down a meal in record time can lead to more than digestive discomfort and possible acclaim in food-eating contests. Studies have warned that speed eaters can easily become overeaters, possibly because they lose track of how sated they are amidst hurried bites. Moreover, the pattern of consuming large portions of food quickly is associated with obesity in children, adolescents and adults. 

Researchers in Bristol, England, sought to break this pattern in children and adolescents using a machine dubbed the Mandometer, which is designed to manage the pace of meals. The device features a computerized scale that calculates the rate of food intake and, like a hovering mother, constantly reminds the user if he or she should eat slower or faster. The device, first developed to help treat anorexia and bulimia nervosa, actually issues verbal feedback.

In a study published January 5 in the British Medical Journal, participants who received Mandometer assistance for one year lost significantly more body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of weight based on height, than those who did not. In fact, the Mandometer group, but not the control group, achieved the reduction in BMI that the authors had previously determined was necessary to lead to a difference in body composition and metabolism.

The finding suggests that "modifying eating behavior might provide additional benefits to standard lifestyle modification in treating obese adolescents," the authors wrote, noting that adolescents have been more difficult to treat for obesity through counseling than younger children. The study was led by Julian P.H. Shield, a professor of diabetes and metabolic endocrinology at the University of Bristol. 

To test the merits of the Mandometer, Shield’s group worked with a group of 106 obese pre-adolescents and adolescents, from 9 to 17 {sorry, this was dyslexia on my part mixing up "9 to 17" with "7 to 19"}  years of age. The researchers factored into their analysis the pubertal stage of the participants, which ranged from pre-puberty to post-puberty. All participants saw a dietician at the beginning of the study, as well as a dietitian and exercise specialist every four months during the 12-month trial. Fifty-four of the participants were randomly selected to incorporate the Mandometer into their dietary regime. The researchers measured subjects’ BMI, eating pattern and cholesterol levels at the beginning and end of the one-year trial and six months after the trial ended.

The researchers asked the Mandometer group to use the devise for one meal a day, which usually ended up being dinner. "Eating meals at school had proved difficult for some participants for practical or personal…reasons," the authors wrote.  For this meal, subjects ate from a plate that was on a scale that was, in turn, attached to a computer. During the session, the Mandometer would measure the amount of food eaten, based on the weight of the plate. The computer plotted these numbers on the y-axis of a graph, and the time of food consumption, in minutes, on the x-axis. The computer voice prompted the eater to slow down when the resulting line on the graph started to veer from what had been entered into the computer as the normal eating rate. (Although in this experiment the computer voice reminded the user to slow down, previous studies used the "speed up" prompt to encourage anorexic patients to eat.) In addition, the computer asked the participant to rate his or her satiety at regular intervals during the meal.

At the outset of the trial, all of the participants had a BMI that was at least three standard deviations above the healthy range. Shield’s group determined this difference—also expressed as BMI standard deviation score, or BMI SDS—by comparing the participants’ BMIs to those of healthy children of similar age and height. At the end of the trial and at the six-month follow-up, the group found that the BMS SDS of the Mandometer group had shifted closer, by 0.4 standard deviations, to the healthy BMI range than the control group, which shifted 0.14 standard deviations. Doctors usually start to see an improvement in blood pressure and cholesterol in obese patients after they have shifted by at least 0.25 standard deviations. Although blood pressure, "bad" cholesterol levels and insulin metabolism actually improved for both groups, the level of "good" cholesterol rose only in the Mandometer group.

Given that participants who had a Mandometer "eating companion" lost more weight than those that did not, it would make sense that the success was due to a slower eating pace, the authors wrote. Although eating pace dropped 11 percent among Mandometer users compared with a 4 percent increase in the control group over the course of the study period, the difference was not great enough to be considered statistically significant. In addition, participants using the device felt sated after consuming smaller portions, although this effect was lost after six months of not using the Mandometer. This result "suggests that intermittent short periods of retraining [with the Mandometer] might be necessary to maintain maximum benefits," the authors wrote.

The drop in BMI SDS of 0.4 among pre-adolescents and adolescents using the Mandometer is greater than the BMI SDS reduction of 0.3 that is achieved in younger obese children through counseling, the authors wrote. They also point out that the device should also be tested on adults and younger children. And, because regulating food consumption is important following laparoscopic gastric banding (surgery aimed at countering obesity), the Mandometer could prove useful to help people moderate how fast they eat following this surgery.
   
Image courtesy of iStockphoto/keeweeboy





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  1. 1. undefined 4:57 pm 01/6/2010

    A far more elegant device was invented long ago, and is still in use in much of the world: chopsticks.

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  2. 2. 1up 7:36 pm 01/6/2010

    @undefined

    Thank you, came to say same.

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  3. 3. 1up 7:37 pm 01/6/2010

    @undefined

    You win.

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  4. 4. Nathaniel 1:20 am 01/7/2010

    And before chopsticks, there were mothers. They gave the verbal feedback of "don’t don’t so fast" without the need for any extra or expensive technology.

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  5. 5. sunny strobe 10:51 am 01/7/2010

    This mandometer machine eerily reminds me of the one Charlie Chaplin is confronted with in "Modern Times"….What is not mentioned at all is :WHAT type of food is being fed to these robot-controlled eaters?
    With th obesity, the crux of the matter is clearly this:
    Our primeval feeding instincts must have evolved in tandem with mainly wild and unprocessed raw plant food eating. Samll wonder therefore if these same old feeding habits are not calibrated at all to cope with the calorie-condensed crapp provided by the latter-day food industry! Eating an apple before anything else is the best and simplest appetite regulator on earth! For more information about species-specific nutrition, visit Youthevity,com

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  6. 6. tmaskell 3:37 pm 01/7/2010

    That model in the picture was never fat.

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  7. 7. amygdala joy 10:24 pm 01/7/2010

    @tmaskell
    Maybe she was anorexic. She was "eating too slow"…

    I wonder if it was really the eating speed rather than portion control that resulted in weight loss?

    Also, if I were ever given one of these machines I’d need someone to nag me into using it. It looks like it makes eating a stressful experience, not to mention it appears to be a drag to set up each night.

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  8. 8. Nathaniel 12:57 pm 01/8/2010

    @sunny strobe
    It’s been suggested that we did actually evolve to eat at least cooked foods and that it was this access to higher calorie diets that allowed us to spend our "evolutionary currency" on other aspects of ourselves such as our brains (which require a ton of calories to operate). Neither our teeth nor our digestive tract are up to scratch when it comes to processing raw (high fiber) foods. We have adapted to a low fiber, low gristle, high calorie diet. Now, we still haven’t adapted to the current level of abundance that we are currently experiencing. 100-200 years ago, we were pretty much all still eating just what we needed in order to survive, so slow metabolisms kept you from starving. But for the way we currently eat, a fast metabolism would be better suited.

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  9. 9. bubblewrap74 8:06 pm 01/17/2010

    It seems to me that even asking the eaters to constantly rate how sated they were would bring attention to eating, which alone could account for the weight loss if it caused the people to eat less.

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