‘I have background in nutrition,’ says Van den Boer. ‘I soon realized that the main challenge does not lie in what people should eat to stay healthy. We generally know what we should be eating, but people don’t do it anyway.’ That is why the postdoc researcher quickly shifted her focus towards eating behavior – and how we could support healthy habits.
‘Healthy eating is often considered unattractive. Even if people have a goal to eat healthy, there are other goals that are in conflict with it. For example, people also want to enjoy themselves, to indulge in food,’ she continues. ‘If you eat something tasty, such as a cookie, there is an immediate reward. While health is less tangible. Yes, if you eat the cookie this might increase your chances of developing diabetes at some point, but that is harder to keep in mind. I want to make these two goals more compatible and make eating both healthy and enjoyable.’ To create ‘happy eating’ in other words.
Screaming gummy bears
Technology provides all kinds of new opportunities for that, believes Van den Boer. It could be used to monitor and reward ‘good’ behavior. Technology can also make healthy eating more interactive. ‘You could use sensors and make something happen every time you take a bite. For instance, in one experiment researchers used gummy bears, a chewing sensor and audio feedback. Once you chew into the bear, you’d hear the sound of people screaming. That is of course a bit extreme, but you could also use more subtle things, such as the recently developed interactive table that could reveal a picture after you finish your vegetables. There are endless possibilities.’
The key to making healthy food more attractive for people might indeed lie in other aspects than the taste. ‘You can never make healthy food taste like the indulgent, unhealthy options, but eating is a lot more than just the food itself,’ stresses the scientist. ‘You can shift people’s focus to other sensory experiences and you can enhance other aspects of eating, such as the social aspect. It is not only about the taste.’
Happy eating events
To explore all the possible forms of happy eating and connect all available knowledge, Janet van den Boer is organizing a ‘Happy Eating Event’ at the UT in March. As part of the EFRO Food & Cognition network project, the symposium will bring together organizations interested in the eating experience and technology. Later this year, the scientist will reach out to the general public. She plans to set up a ‘happy eating area’ at the food festival Stoer Voer and at the Maker Festival Twente.
happy eating research line
Happy Eating research line is being developed by scientists from various departments at the University of Twente. Janet van den Boer, postdoc at the Biomedical Signals and Systems group, is one of the leading scientists behind this new research. Other involved researchers are: Hermie Hermens, Femke Nijboer and Roelof de Vries from the Biomedical Signals and Systems group (EEMCS); Dirk Heylen, Juliet Haarman, Randy Klaassen and Robby van Delden from the Human Media Interaction group (EEMCS); Geke Ludden from the Interaction Design group (ET); and Bas de Boer from the Philosophy group (BMS). Moreover, about 20 students are doing a graduation project on happy eating.