The Future of Food: How Technological Advances Will Help Shape Nutritional Interventions

By Jonathan Cerna, MS and Neuroscience PhD Student

Educational video games, given their interactive and playful nature, have gained significant traction as mediums to implement interventions. The nutrition world, however, has not seen much benefit from this explosion in development and interest. This begs the question: what promises do they hold for nutrition education? Unfortunately, brain games set somewhat of a murky precedent. More and more evidence now concludes that most brain training games don’t transfer their benefits to our activities of daily living in meaningful ways, except, that is, for the ones that do. Huh? It seems like some people have figured out that there is something about mimicking a real-world scenario or what researchers call “ecological validity” that is crucial for this meaningful transfer to occur. Could the same logic carry over to nutritional education? What can technological advancements offer us when it comes to real-world skills that we wish to gain?

Imagine mimicking sweet cravings and practicing resisting them without food in front of you, or receiving personalized nutrition education from the comfort of your home. This may sound too good to be true, but it might be exactly what the nutrition field will rely on in the future. Nutritional scientists are finally getting their tech equivalent to brain games that actually have some transfer, as shown by the development of a recent immersive virtual alimentation program and nutrition application by researchers at Penn State.

As any gamer out there may know, when one is absorbed in a semi-realistic simulated  environment, our bodies become incredibly immersed and virtually (pun intended) absorbed in it. Virtual reality amplifies this effect, and both our body and mind get lost in the experience. When it comes to food, it seems like our bodies work in the same way. For instance, we can reliably induce the physiological and psychological responses to sweet-cravings with simulations.

Of course, the hurdles of cost-permissive immersive technology remain, but in my opinion, this is a huge step forward. I would personally argue that if this kind of technology can be leveraged to truly help people, it might end up lowering costs in the long run. How so? Think of Sally. Sally has been battling multiple but often related comorbidities of social anxiety and severe disordered eating. She must drive on separate days to work with her dietitian and her psychologist, as they are in separate clinics. What if you could save time, gas, and a few rounds of anxiety symptoms by staying in the comfort of your own home and getting a multimodal treatment delivery in which you use an immersive digital intervention to get you started and perhaps partially treated? 

Research, practice, and technological advancements must develop  together to deliver just-in-time interventions that are easily accessible, practical, personalized, and most importantly, effective. Are we there? Not yet, but there are promising bright lines paving the way. Consider Neuroscape, an interdisciplinary private company bridging the gap between neuroscience and technology that developed the first digital therapeutic for kids with ADHD, or Dr.Jud a company developed by renowned researcher and clinician, Judson Brewer, focusing on leveraging mindfulness practices to tackle anxiety, disordered eating, and smoking cessation. What’s next for nutrition education?

Peer-edited by: Gabrielle Dardis, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry and Biophysics

Picture credit: Tejaswini Petkar, Msc Microbiology. Image created from 4 sources (1, 2, 3, 4).

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