Written by Tara Culp-Ressler
A team of engineers at Microsoft Research have developed a high-tech bra that’s intended to monitor women’s stress levels and dissuade them from emotional over-eating. The undergarment has sensors that track the user’s heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and movement — all of which can indicate the type of stressful emotions that lead to over-eating, according to Microsoft researchers. The data is sent to a smartphone app, which then alerts users about their mood.
Researchers hope it could be an innovative solution to stress-induced eating, which is a potential contributor to the nation’s obesity epidemic. Their research on the subject, as well as their design for the new bra, is laid out in a new paper entitled “Food and Mood: Just-in-Time Support for Emotional Eating.”
“It’s mostly women who are emotional over-eaters, and it turns out that a bra is perfect for measuring EKG (electrocardiogram),” Mary Czerwinski, one of the senior researchers at Microsoft, told Discovery News. Czerwinski explained that her team tried to develop an underwear version for men, but it didn’t end up working because underwear is located too far away from the heart.
Even if researchers didn’t intend to make a female-specific product, however, any move to mass market a “diet bra” would certainly have gendered implications. Our society is saturated with images depicting an unrealistic standard of female beauty, and the media is often an active participant in shaming women for their weight. Although tackling the obesity epidemic is a critical issue in the U.S., efforts to address it have been fraught with negative messages about heavier bodies. Public health campaigns in this area often rely on fat-shaming, even though that’s actually an ineffective strategy to get people to lose weight. It’s perhaps no surprise that U.S. girls are developing body issues at increasingly younger ages.
A product that warns women that their emotions are putting them at risk of getting fat plays into all of those issues, as well as contributes to the pervasive societal attitude that women’s emotions make them irrational.
Although stress indicators have been repeatedly linked to changes in individual eating behavior, the scientific body of research on stress, gender and obesity isn’t clear-cut. For instance, periods of particularly severe stress are more likely to lead people to eat less, not more. And stress doesn’t necessarily encourage every woman to turn to junk food. Some studies in the area suggest that the women who already have relatively healthy diets are more likely to choose healthier foods when they’re under stress, while women whose diets are already high in fat and sugar are more likely to crave those things in emotionally trying situations.
And perhaps more broadly, stress-induced eating may not actually be a huge public health problem in the first place. Gudrun Sproesser, a German researcher who recently published a paper on the subject, told Discovery News that emotionally-driven eating isn’t necessarily a negative thing, depending on individuals’ eating patterns during less stressful times. “Stress eaters should not be considered at risk to gain weight by default,” Sproesser explained in a press release about her research. “Our results suggest the need for a dynamic view of food intake across multiple situations, positive and negative.”
Smart bras probably won’t be coming to a department store near you anytime soon. Microsoft researchers are currently figuring how to get the battery life on their device to last longer than four hours.
This post was originally published in ThinkProgress.
Photo credit: University of Rochester/Microsoft Research