Computerised treatment for teaching obese teenagers how to eat healthily

Researchers from the University of Bristol have embarked upon a trial to test an innovative computerised treatment for teaching obese teenagers how to eat healthily. It is hoped that the new treatment will help the adolescents to lose a considerable amount of weight and reap the accompanying health benefits.

The BUPA Foundation has awarded the 30-month project a grant of £120,000, Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen, governor of the BUPA Foundation, said, “Childhood obesity now represents one of the major threats to the future health of children today, often leading to diabetes and heart problems in later life. The BUPA Foundation is extremely encouraged by this trial which is looking at new ways of tackling the problem.”

Five years ago, a clinic was set up to tackle childhood obesity at the Royal Hospital for Children in Bristol. The clinic sees up to 100 children and adolescents between the ages of five and eighteen, spending time with each family discussing the reasons that may have led to obesity, the problems that obesity can cause and possible lifestyle choices associated with a stabilisation or reduction in weight.

“So far we’ve found that younger children respond better to interventions and that many adolescents do not respond to our measures and continue to gain weight. Now we are aiming to recruit as many as 80 teenagers onto our trial. Half will continue with the clinic while the other half will be trained to use a computerised regimen called Mandometer® which has been used to help our more difficult adolescent cases lose weight,” said Dr Julian Hamilton-Shield, consultant senior lecturer in child health at Bristol University.

Developed at the Centre for Eating Disorders in Stockholm, Sweden, Mandometer® teaches patients how to eat and feel full. Consisting of a scale connected to a computer, the patient fills a plate with food and the computer records and stores the weight loss of the plate as the patient eats. The computer generates a “curve of eating rate” and the patient rates his or her level of fullness.

Participants in the trial will be given another piece of gadgetry called a Satiety Meter to help them control their food intake between meals. The meter signals at regular intervals, prompting the patient to rate his or her level of fullness. By asking them to rate hunger, the Satiety Meter helps them consider whether or not they are hungry before eating. Finally, each teenager will be given a pedometer and asked to gradually increase the number of steps they take each day.

“All of these resources aim to help teenagers make lifestyle changes that will help them to gain control of their weight. Very importantly, the trial will reward them for changes in their behaviour, not for weight loss,” said Dr Hamilton-Shield.

“We believe this framework will provide the first reproducible and effective management strategy for obese teenagers and adults. We envisage that the basis of this study framework will work in the primary care setting, allowing successful weight control clinics to develop nationally.”

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