Combating childhood obesity with technology

Childhood obesity is one of the most pressing issues facing our public health community, and an emerging technology in the form of “precision nutrition” is poised to combat this crisis effectively.

The CDC reports that between the year 2000 and 2018, U.S. obesity prevalence increased from 30.5 percent to 42.4 percent. That number is especially problematic because across the globe, each year, we lose more than 2.8 million people to obesity-related deaths. What’s even more staggering is that in 2018, 14.4 million adolescents in the U.S. were diagnosed with obesity. COVID intensified the pediatric obesity epidemic, as youths gained more weight during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.

The concept of precision nutrition is to personalize food as preventive medicine. Precision nutrition involves using modern technology such as machine learning and AI to analyze data from an individual’s physiological responses to different diets, and personalizing those diet routines continually for better health outcomes. When used appropriately, precision nutrition can effectively curb obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes well before their onset. The goal from researchers is to use “food as a solution to chronic disease.”

To prevent conditions like obesity and diabetes, prevention through precision nutrition needs to be prioritized over treatment. When obesity numbers go down, life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes that are linked to obesity also see a decrease in numbers.

So how exactly can technology prevent obesity in everyday life?

The awareness and habits for precision nutrition need to begin at a very young age, rather than with adults already living with obesity and diabetes. Children at their annual physicals should be introduced to concepts of precision nutrition. Every year pediatricians across the country advise children to eat fruits and vegetables every day, and not eat fast food. Unfortunately, most kids don’t heed the advice, partly because there are limited reinforcements or resources in their daily lives.

Children and their parents need to be educated and provided with platforms to help calibrate diets for optimal results. We also need to ensure all children have access to healthy and affordable food options, as 6.1 million children live in food-insecure households.

With mobile apps, children can use daily prompts on what to eat and in what quantity. Several new apps also use AI to help present food options that a child is most likely to enjoy while recommending healthy intervals and portions. Data show 90 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 have used social media, with 51 percent reporting visiting a social media site at least daily, so it’s the ideal medium to present precision nutrition.

As the world continues with its technological movement, it’s time for health interventions to join the AI evolution. The future truly is where food becomes natural medicine, but this needs to start early in life. Once you change the way children are educated about their eating habits, you change their entire life — for better, and for longer.

Meghan FitzGerald is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. This year she published the book “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.” She resides in Aquinnah. Anvith Nagarjuna is a senior in high school from the San Francisco Bay Area. Last summer he worked at a precision nutrition firm, Suggestic, and spent the past few years researching personalized medicine at Stanford.