Q&A with 2015 JBF Food Conference Speaker Gary G. Bennett, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke UniversityJBF Editors
September 24, 2015
Dr. Gary G. Bennett, Bishop-MacDermott family professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and director of the Duke Global Digital Health Science Center and the Duke Obesity Prevention Program, is an expert on the use of digital technologies in obesity treatment and intervention strategies. Dr. Bennett, who will be speaking at our 2015 JBF Food Conference, shared his thoughts on wearable technology, phone-based treatment in high-risk communities, and more.
James Beard Foundation: Right now it seems that wearable technology (and a lot of technology in general) comes with a higher price point. As prices lower, will tech and data be used to democratize obesity prevention? How?
Dr. Gary Bennett: Absolutely. Tracker makers know that they don't have long to make big margins for wearables with low-cost innards. There's no reason for the devices to cost so much, and for the market to thrive, we need to get wearables onto the arms of more consumers. We're seeing the first wave in what I predict will be a broader charge of low-cost wearables. In just a few years, I think we'll see discounted wearables lining the shelves at our local drugstores. These lower cost devices will help consumers in another way: when wearables become commoditized, companies will be forced to differentiate their products by building better software. That will be a welcome change. Right now, wearable software does a great job collecting data, but they could do much more to help us change. We need apps that provide actionable information to help us make healthful behavior changes. Once prices drop, I think we'll see trackers turn into the health promotion tools that we've been waiting for.
JBF: For the average person, does knowing this data (calorie intake, steps taken, etc.) actually matter? Do personal health trackers make a difference in a user’s behavior and health outcomes?
GB: We have a remarkable ability to self-regulate our behaviors, but we need good data. That's why tracking is consistently shown to be one of the most important predictors of success with behavior change. So, yes, tracking matters. A lot. And there's very good data that people who track consistently do much better than those who track more variably. I recommend tracking something that you can stick with, consistently, for the extended amount of time that's necessary to change a behavior. That means not tracking things that feel overly complicated, cause undue anxiety, or that require significant time. You don't need an app, but they can be very helpful in reminding you to track. It's best to keep things simple. We've recently learned that simply weighing one's self every day can be an extremely helpful adjunct to a weight loss program. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
JBF: What technology have you seen that does help with obesity prevention in high-risk populations? What barriers exist in adopting/disseminating this technology?
GB: Mobile technology has changed everything for high-risk populations. These groups have very high rates of smartphone adoption and app utilization. This has created a wonderful opportunity for us to reach those who have the highest rates of chronic disease owing to unhealthful behaviors. However, the key challenge for behavior change is keeping people engaged over time. That makes it critical for us to design technologies that are simple, sticky, and supportive. That's what we're doing now—developing low-cost, phone-based technologies that can reach high-risk populations with treatments that are both personalized and effective.
JBF: What project are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
GB: We recently developed a phone-based treatment for low-income patients with obesity and significant cardiovascular disease risk. We deliver a powerful obesity treatment through the phone and use the resulting data to help registered dietitians and primary care providers make better treatment decisions. This is a population of patients with the highest rates of obesity, chronic disease, and health care costs. But they're also a group for whom most obesity treatments just don't work. We just finished the trial and hope that it will help us improve how we treat our most medically vulnerable population.
JBF: What part of the 2015 JBF Food Conference are you most looking forward to?
GB: The whole thing (no, really). The world of food is poised for revolutionary change and it will be exciting to hear what's coming.
For more information about the 2015 JBF Food Conference, visit jbffoodconference.org or follow #JBFCONF2015 on Twitter.