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Content archived on 2024-06-18

Exploring home-based support systems for promotion of food, nutritional knowledge and personal choice

Final Report Summary - BALANCE@HOME (Exploring home-based support systems for promotion of food, nutritional knowledge and personal choice.)

Benefits of a healthy diet are well known, and many people have the sincere intention to eat healthier. However, due to many everyday pressures and lack of knowledge, this intention appears to be hard to realize for many consumers, resulting in choosing food too rich in calories and fats and sugar, and too poor in healthy nutrients. So, diet and lifestyle related diseases, such as diabetes, are on the rise. The Balance@Home project aimed to develop hassle-free solutions for European citizens to help them to obtain a balanced lifestyle, with a focus on healthy food.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) overweight and obesity are a serious public health challenge in the European region. The obesity trend is especially alarming in children and adolescents. The annual rate of increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity has been growing steadily, and the current rate is 10 times higher than it was in the 1970s. These trends do result in a major health challenge, and of course also in a socio-economical challenge, e.g. due to rising health care costs. So, no surprise that health officials and governments are much concerned. Many interventions have been considered and implemented, but so far the rise in number of overweight citizens has not been stopped. In addition to public information campaigns, also a range of technology options are being considered these days. Examples are phone- and web based food diaries that consumers can use to monitor their food choices. However, these require much effort on the part of the users, and generally such applications do not manage to change attitudes and behaviour of consumers on the long run.
Balance@Home aimed to provide European citizens with consumer solutions for a hassle-free guidance towards a balanced lifestyle in particular with respect to meal planning, meal preparation and personal choice. The key question we wanted to address was how can we empower consumers and give them hassle-free guidance towards an improved diet? And what role can technology play in that.
In order to provide such support, it is helpful to first learn what people are currently doing. So, the project focused on methods for inferring eating habits in an unobtrusive way. Next step then is to use this information to provide situated feedback on meal planning and preparation – that is, feedback that takes into account the person, and his or her current situation and condition.
To state this more formally: The goal of Balance@Home was to explore the potential of the instrumented and connected kitchen (by using for example networked sensors) to provide access and advice to nutritional information. This was linked directly to the everyday setting in which people prepare and consume food – their kitchen, their homes.
Since the project is targeting to change people’s behaviour, it was seen as vital to take user needs and requirements as the starting point for technology development; therefore a user-centered development approach (UCD) was adopted throughout the project. To that end, several studies were conducted to understand how people currently decide what to eat, which factors influence that decision, and what potential there is to support them in more healthy choices in that decision process. In one study in which we followed users while shopping for ingredients (so-called shop-a-long studies), several practical elements of food practices for households were identified (such as not having shopping lists, having little or short term planning). Other studies taught us that consumers indeed experience some strong barriers to having a healthy meal on a regular basis. It seems that in particular the social context in which food consumption decisions are made plays an important role. Another strong barrier is linked to family members: if they are not supportive, it is going to be very hard to make changes. An interesting barrier also identified by our research is the role of family conventions and traditions around regularly having certain types of food; for example, in some households it is traditional to eat pizza every Friday or French fries during the weekend. This is perhaps a very interesting learning from the research, and important in developing solutions that will provide optimal support, and keep people motivated: having a less healthy meal once in a while should be a formal part of any program.
Combined over all studies, the findings suggests the design of particular technologies to resolve situated timeliness, ethical provision of food within the home, the positive and negative impact of the presence of others, the potential for social food initiatives, the contradictory nature of ‘good’ and ‘quick’ food, and the implications of routines for balanced diet.
Based on such findings, a range of possible solutions were created, such as embedded sensor algorithms to support cooking competence; a prototype meal planning system to encourage family democracy for a balanced diet; a variety of algorithms and artefacts to support cooking preparation, such as the FibreBoard optical chopping board. Some more details on these solutions follows in the next paragraphs.
In one technology study, we looked into ways to monitor cooking competence, as an indicator to what extent a user could use support in improving cooking skills – as one element in changing towards a more balanced diet. The outcome of this study provided, on the one hand, an indication that it may be possible to measure certain aspects of cooking competence unobtrusively, using embedded sensor algorithms. On the other hand it provided an insight as to what activities are performed in the kitchen and which utensils are used. These insights, combined with other requirements (i.e. the need for unobtrusive, low cost, and deployable monitoring), provided the foundation for our sensor infrastructure. In a pilot user study we evaluated the sensor infrastructure with respect to: how it was perceived by users; the extent to which it allows us to measure meal preparation; and how accurately we can recognize the constituent activities. The outcome of this study showed that our sensor infrastructure is perceived as unobtrusive and that activity recognition is likely to be a valuable component of a cooking competence measurement system.
Another solution we developed looked to support democratic decision making within the household for a balanced diet. A provocative meal planning application was developed for situated devices ( integrating persuasive and nudge techniques to improve the healthfulness of those decisions. The prototype system required family members to discuss and choose meals based on a weighting of the healthfulness from the Mediterranean diet. Such prototypes challenge the conventional discourses of the household, as identified in our research findings, and provide an opportunity for children to be socialized into a more engaged food life.
Additional studies examined the possibilities to support activity recognition within the kitchen through artifact (i.e. food) recognition. The FiberBoard, a chopping board capable to capture images through fiber optics, was designed and developed to recognize food artifacts placed on it during food preparation. The FiberBoard fits within the Ambient Kitchen ecosystem to further establish the possibilities for automated support for a balanced diet.