Clemson University researchers unveil diet device that counts bites
CLEMSON — Just in time for the holidays, two Clemson University researchers are releasing a sleek, stylish and affordable device that dieters can wear on the wrist like a watch to count how many bites they take.
The device has been available as a prototype for four years, but its bulk and $799 price tag has limited its use mostly to researchers. Hoover and Muth expect the new version to be more accessible and attractive to consumers.
The user presses a button to start the Bite Counter and then eats normally. The device tracks bites by sensing turns of the wrist. An alarm sounds when the user hits a preset limit. The new version also includes a step counter and a screen showing how much battery life is left.
Hoover and Muth are already thinking about how to make their device better. They landed a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health earlier this year to improve on the Bite Counter.
“We’re trying to help people,” Hoover said. “This is about university research. We want to get something out there that works, and we want to get it to as many people as possible.”
More than one in three adults are obese and more than two in three are obese or overweight, according to the NIH.
South Carolina has the nation’s 10th highest adult obesity rate at 31.7 percent, according to a report by The State of Obesity. That’s up from 25.1 percent in 2004 and from 12 percent in 1990.
The Bite Counter could help eliminate the need for dieters to log what they eat in food diaries or apps, Hoover said. When left on their own, people tend to underestimate how much they eat by as much as 50 percent, he said.
“This device can objectively and automatically measure for you, so it can take away that whole burden and make it easier for you to keep track of what you’re eating,” Hoover said. “It’s like a pedometer for the mouth.”
The Bite Counter gives a rough calorie estimate based on averages.
But not all bites are created equal. Italian cream cake, for example, has a lot more calories than broccoli.
While it’s impractical to measure how many calories are in each morsel, people tend to eat the same foods from week to week, Muth said. The Bite Counter can help in the long run, he said.
“What we’re trying to make people understand is how much they are eating and get them to try to reduce their portions,” Muth said. “You monitor yourself for a while and then make a small adjustment to a lower number of bites and hold it over time.”
The average person takes 100 bites a day, but the number can vary greatly, Muth said.
Hoover and Muth plan to use the NIH grant to more accurately translate bites into calories. They want users to be able to program their Bite Counters with personal data, such as age, gender and weight.
“Three years from now, it will know something about who is wearing it and be that much more accurate,” Hoover said.
The researchers also plan to enable the device to automatically detect when the user is eating. The new function would detect snacking and eliminate the need to turn on the Bite Counter at mealtime.
The new version is lightweight, water resistant, and less than half the size of the prototype.
“It is prettier, too,” Hoover said. “It is sleek, small and discrete. Instead of being manufactured by university researchers, it is manufactured by a company that knows how to make it look nice and wearable.”
Two separate research teams at the University of South Carolina and Medical University of South Carolina are doing studies involving the new version of the device, Muth said.
Hoover is an associate professor in the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Muth is professor of psychology and interim associate dean of research in the College of Business and Behavioral Sciences.
When Hoover and Muth began their work, they were trying to develop sensors for the military that would help track troop movement.
“Then we had this discovery that, wow, we could count bites, and nobody else could do that,” Muth said.
Hoover and Muth managed to get some seed funding through S.C. Launch and created a company, Bite Technologies, to build their device based on a Clemson patent. They later landed an NIH Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer grant, which led to a Phase II grant.
But the most recent NIH grant, which is part of the agency’s R01 program, is the biggest of them all.
“In total, this new funding plus the original funding, represents over $3 million dollars in funding targeted at a Clemson University effort,” Muth said.
Robert McCormick, dean of the College of Business and Behavioral Sciences, said the partnership was a great example of collaboration between disciplines.
“Eric and Adam have done some exemplary work,” he said. “Their project shows how time, effort, creativity and entrepreneurship builds successful research programs that lead to significant funding.”
“This shows what can happen when researchers with different backgrounds work together,” he said. “Adam and Eric have landed a grant of $1.7 million, but more importantly, they are developing a product that could have a real impact on people’s lives and public health.”