Bra Sensors Could Monitor Overeating

Stress-busting garment made with special material monitors the wearer's moods and helps to regulate stress eating.

Recent studies show that up to half the U.S. population complains that they eat more when they are stressed, a condition that has also led to high rates of obesity -– and often a negative cycle of eating more, gaining weight and then getting stressed out about gaining weight -– especially during Thanksgiving.

Researchers have been designing new kinds of ways to help anxious overeaters reduce this habit, or at least make them aware of when it's happening. Along with stress apps for the smartphone and bracelets with special sensors, engineers and designers at Microsoft Research recently invented a stress-busting bra made with special material that monitors the wearers moods and helps to regulate stress eating.

"It's mostly women who are emotional overeaters, and it turns out that a bra is perfect for measuring EKG (electrocardiogram)," said Mary Czerwinski, a cognitive psychologist and senior researcher in visualization and interaction at Microsoft. "We tried to do the same thing for men's underwear but it was too far away (from the heart)."

The stress-busting bra was recently tested by a small group of volunteers who were able to get feedback on their moods. Microsoft built the sensor pads with a microprocessor powered by a 3.7-volt battery. It was able to sample up to eight bio-signal channels simultaneously, according to Czerwinski's research paper, "Food and Mood: Just-in-Time Support for Emotional Eating," which was presented recently at the Society for Affective Computing conference.

The sensors captured heart rate and respiration with an EKG sensor, skin conductance with an electrodermal activity sensor, and movement with an accelerometer and gyroscope. The data was streamed to a smarphone app, as well as stored in the researchers' computer.

By both recording their own moods on a smartphone app and collecting data from the bra-sensors, the scientists could accurately predict changes in physiology that accompanies eating and stress, including whether the subjects were happy or angry.

The sensor pads were built into each woman's own bra, but Czerwinski admitted that they only worked for about four hours until they had to recharge the batteries. She's now looking for another part of the body to monitor moods that has similar physiological accuracy, but that doesn't require as much work.

"Those brave women kept having to run to the bathroom to charge their bra," Czwerwinski said. "I think an insert in the foot would be good because feet are really sweaty."

Czerwinski and others in the field of affective computing are trying to find ways to get technology to monitor and understand human emotions and perhaps offer simple prescriptions. A Microsoft phone app under development has users visit social media sites or write positive emails as simple ways of elevating mood.

Another project with cancer doctors gives them instant feedback on their degree of patient empathy, or, put another way, their "bedside manner." A wall fabric with built-in sensors detects whether the doctor is talking or listening during a patient visit and whether the physician is using warm or cold emotional language. The fabric, in the form of a flower, then changes shape and color as a way of helping the doctor improve communications.

As for stressful eating, another psychologist says that maybe we shouldn't worry about it so much. Gudrun Sproesser, a post-doctoral student at Germany's University of Konstanz, published a study recently that calls into question the oft-held belief that stressful eaters are engaging in negative behavior.

Using an experiment where volunteers were put into a stressful situation and then given ice cream to eat, Sproesser found that self-described stress-eaters did binge on ice cream. But when they were put into positive situations, they compensated by eating less. Volunteers who skipped food when stressed actually ate more than the stress eaters when they were happy.

"The message should be that people shouldn't people think too much about their eating," said Sproesser. "If they feel like eating in a positive situation, they should; if it's negative, they probably will compensate for that."

Sproeusser, whose study was published last month in the journal Psychological Science, said the next step is to find out whether stress-eaters can switch from unhealthy junk food to healthy food and still deal with feelings of stress.

A Thanksgiving Day meal with intentional insect ingredients is hardly the norm for most Americans, but it could be our future due to the cost, nutritional and environmental benefits of edible bugs. Such dishes already are on the menu at the Audubon Butterfly Garden Insectarium in New Orleans, with its "Bug Appétit" daily cooking shows and samples. "We certainly don't serve anything other than terrific food in New Orleans -- haven’t you heard?" asked Zack Lemann, animal and visitor programs manager at Audubon. "And we like upholding our city's reputation as an outstanding food town. So even though insects may seem odd, you can bet that ours will be tasty."

The right edible insect can provide an incredible protein punch. For example, Lemann said that house crickets, per 100 grams, contain about 13 grams of protein and 5 grams each of carbohydrate and fat. "This is actually a very good nutritional balance for humans," he told Discovery News, adding that roasted crickets taste a lot like sunflower seeds. "So a diet that includes a lot of these insects would by yummy and healthy."

The Insectarium recipe for turkey stuffing includes a half-cup of mealworms per cup of stuffing. They are boiled for 10-15 minutes with, if desired, a seasoning blend for extra spice kick. After straining, they are mixed into the stuffing. Lemann and his team get their edible insects from a few different "farms" in the United States that otherwise supply to the zoo industry and the pet trade. As small creatures, insects can absorb pollutants, so harvesting them on your own is not advisable.

Cranberry sauce is on virtually all Thanksgiving Day tables. "I'm certain your old stand-by, maybe handed down from grandma, is superb," Lemann said, "but wouldn't it be even more wonderful with poached wax worms added?" He first poaches the wax worms in hot -- not quite boiling water -- for about 3 minutes. One-half cup of insects per cup of the regular cranberry sauce mixture "should provide a good ratio so you can see and taste the bugs."

Pecan and pumpkin pie can be "nuttier by adding roasted house crickets," Lemann shared. "Use enough crickets to mostly cover a standard sized baking tray and cook them at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes." When baked or roasted, the crickets become crunchy and retain their sunflower seed taste. "They make dessert hoppin' good."

Like all food ingredients, edible insects aren't just for holiday-time consumption. Chocolate chip cookies, for example, often include nuts. Instead of nuts, Lemann adds toasted edible insects for extra crunch and flavor.

Even diners who have tried every food imaginable probably have not sampled a dish of dragonflies and mushrooms. "Fried dragonflies taste like soft shell crab and are just fabulous," Lemann said. "We like to collect wild specimens when we can. It's definitely a specialty dish. After we fry them they go atop a sautéed mushroom slice with a small dollop of Dijon-soy butter. Outstanding!"

A University of Amsterdam study looked at how motivated people are to eat more environmentally friendly proteins. The study included a snack made out of locusts, along with foods containing lentils, seaweed and a "hybrid meat" that was part meat and part meat substitute. "In answering the question which snack they would least like to taste, most participants chose the snack made from insects," the study reported. The hybrid meat item struck test subjects as being more palatable.

Early humans likely ate a lot of insects. While certain Latin, African and other cultures have no problem with such foods today, many people clearly are put off by the idea. Lemann points out that crustaceans (shrimp, crab, lobster...) are acceptable on menus, and yet each of these creatures is "basically just a bug that lives in the water. For that matter, we eat some mammals (cattle and swine, for example) and not others. Explanations can be hard to come by for these varying choices and practices."

Crickets seem to be tasty good eats, for animals and willing humans, but not all insect species are edible. A general rule of warning is when an insect displays patterns of red, orange, yellow or white spots/bands on black. These usually are visual signals meaning "I taste bad" or "I will sting you," Lemann said. "Camouflage insects are trying to hide from vertebrates that want to eat them because, in many instances, they taste good,” he said. "Second if you look at cultures around the world that eat insects, you'll see that generally 'on the menu' are many types of grasshoppers and their kin, caterpillars and beetle larvae."

"'Going green' includes embracing agricultural practices that are more environmentally friendly, and rearing insects for human consumption as opposed to cattle, for example, fits the bill," Lemann said. "Insects convert plant matter into edible table 'meat' at a rate of efficiency 10 times better than cows."

"The U.S. is, more and more, seeing insect fairs that include bug tasting," Lemann said. "And you can also find a marked increase in restaurants that offer insect dishes. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that you could find raw fish at restaurants in Arizona and Iowa in such numbers as we see today? But sushi is everywhere, right? Maybe insects will take off in similar fashion."