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Healthy eating just a click away: nutrition and health in the 21st century

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15/10/2020
Mariona Folguera
Mobile apps play an essential role in individual health management and are vital in preventing problems related to bad dietary habits and a sedentary lifestyle

The emergence of information and communication technologies (TIC) has transformed the health paradigm. In the first place, it has enabled the digitization of the health system with the introduction of remote check-ups and e-prescriptions, while, secondly, it has afforded everyone access to the principal indicators of their own health (weight, heart rate, blood sugar, etc.), which has given people an element of control over their individual health. Mobiles, tablets, smart watches and mobile apps have played a huge part and have empowered people in terms of these issues.

In fact, in 2017, Frederico C. Guanais, PhD in Public Administration and expert in health policy and planning with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),  observed that the empowerment of patients could improve the quality of healthcare, as it would decongest a system that is normally saturated. Besides the benefits it would have on the system, the fact that the public has a stake in their own health means that they are more aware and responsible about everything that might affect them, both physically and mentally. It is here that e-health, the research area of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's eHealth Center, plays a key role as, according to the president of the Catalan Digital Health Society, Francesc Garcia Cuys, it will be the "driving force of change towards new care and relationship models between patients and healthcare workers". The studies back up Dr Garcia Cuys, as it is calculated that 80 % of illnesses in the future will be related to our lifestyle.

To prevent the appearance of these new pathologies, or to reduce their effect on the population, experts agree that avoiding a sedentary lifestyle as well as maintaining a healthy diet are paramount. In the words of Alicia Aguilar Martnez, professor with the Faculty of Health Sciences and director of the University Master's Degree in Nutrition and Health, "the scientific evidence confirms the essential role played by nutrition in determining health, and has also shown that a person's diet can influence quality of life and make them more or less likely to develop certain diseases".

It is precisely on this aspect that the work of the team led by Marga Serra Alas, expert in nutritional education for the prevention of eating disorders and in new technologies and health, has focused. Together they have designed the Nutrapp website and mobile app, the latter of which takes advantage of instant messaging to help people acquire new habits. As Serra stated:, "Nutrapp uses an online nutritional coaching service in which nutritionists help users acquire these habits by proposing healthy recipes or answering the concerns or queries that they have".

Nutrapp is a pioneering tool in individual health management in line with the food and nutrition education guidelines set out by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the FAO, food and nutrition education works to promote healthy eating habits, develops food guides to promote balanced diets and creates favourable environments for good nutrition. Consequently, this discipline not only focuses on the dissemination of information about food and its properties, it also provides the public with the tools to empower them in terms of their own health and enables them to take decisions to improve their nutrition.

In the same vein as the FAO, Nutrapp fosters a healthy diet and allows users and patients to stick more successfully to the new food habits they are adopting. As Aguilar explained, "studies have shown that inappropriate eating habits and reduced physical activity have led to a rise in chronic diseases linked to food, such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension". According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these pathologies, which are known as noncommunicable diseases (NCD), cause the death of over 40 million people every year, 70% of deaths worldwide.

For this reason, the app – in which the UOC's nutrition team is taking part – is aimed at various groups: patients' associations, school groups, "and even people who live abroad but who want to discover what the Mediterranean diet is so they can follow it", said Serra. To achieve this, the team of experts behind the app adapt the contents to each user and create food and nutrition education messages tailored to the individual.

 

The future: prevention, ageing and planetary health

Although maintaining a good state of health is increasingly more available to more people, Aguilar pointed out that there are still challenges to be overcome, such as "identifying the most suitable users for each intervention and using specific tools". These are challenges that can only be achieved "with more research and more prolonged interventions, on larger samples of the population and with characteristics such as age and very diverse socio-economic aspects".

Only then will we be able to say with any confidence that the mobile app is the best ally in managing our health. Although there are no absolute certainties about the future, as COVID-19 has shown, according to Ramon Gomis, endocrinologist and director of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, "healthcare will completely adopt telemedicine, as well as the active participation of all the members of the public in their own health". Despite these format changes, Dr Gomis recognizes that the three cornerstones of health will remain in place: "We will continue with preventive medicine, healthy ageing and care for the health of the planet".

#UOCexperts

Photograph of Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Alicia Aguilar Martnez

Lecturer in the Health Sciences Department
Director of the Master's Degree in Nutrition and Health
Deputy Deanof Teaching in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Educational innovation in e-health; food studies from a health perspective; biotechnology; nutritional education.

Knowledge area: Nutrition.

View file

Ramon Gomis

Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in:

Knowledge area: Nutrition.

Marga Serra

Course instructor, UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in:

Knowledge area: Nutrition.