Apple is donating 1,000 watches for a new study to track binge eating

Key Points
  • The study is called BEGIN, which stands for Binge Eating Genetics Initiative.
  • For the research, Apple is donating watches to 1,000 people who have experience with eating disorders.
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new Apple Watch at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, September 12, 2018. 
Stephen Lam | Reuters

The Apple Watch is in use by scientists across the country to monitor everything from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease to postpartum depression. Now, researchers are aiming to see how well the device can track eating disorders.

The University of North Carolina's medical school will soon be starting a study called BEGIN, which stands for Binge Eating Genetics Initiative, to better understand overeating. People with binge eating disorder often eat large amounts of food uncontrollably in a small period of time. Those who follow with compensatory behavior like purging or excessive exercise are typically diagnosed with bulimia nervosa.

Cynthia Bulik, founding director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at UNC and one of the researchers behind BEGIN, is hoping to recruit 1,000 participants, ages 18 or older, who have experience with either binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa. Once they're enrolled, they can sign up with a mobile app called Recovery Record, which is designed to help users log their thoughts and feelings in a digital format, and share that information with their doctor ahead of a session. It requires about 10 minutes a day of participation.

Each participant will be given a free watch, courtesy of Apple, and researchers will monitor their heart rate using the device's sensor over the course of a month to see if there are spikes before binge eating episodes. It's likely that a binging and purging episode would cause some biological change that would show up in the Apple Watch data, according to Bulik.

Recovery Record for the iPhone
Recovery Record

"We need to collect data from a whole lot of people to see what it looks like," said Bulik. "We want to know if it has a biological and behavioral signature."

Brian Baucom and Jonathan Butner, researchers from the University of Utah, are helping with the statistical modeling once the data are collected.

An Apple spokesperson declined to comment.

The group of researchers is going after a big and underfunded problem. At least 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

The data might provide a way for the researchers to predict binge eating incidents before they happen. That could lead to a follow-up study about where some sort of alert might help.

"We're interested to find out what happens in the time period leading up to the binge and the purge," said Jenna Tregarthen, CEO of Recovery Record. "And we hope we can anticipate and ultimately change the course of that episode."

In addition to helping out with the heart rate piece of the study, those who enroll will receive tests to analyze their genetics and bodily bacteria (or microbiome) so the researchers can better understand the root causes of the disease. A start-up called UBiome is sending free at-home testing kits to participants and will do the analysis.

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