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App interfaces can change calorie consumption, Oxford study finds

Small changes to the infrastructure and user-interfaces of apps such as UberEats and Deliveroo can reduce the calorie consumption of customers by up to 15%, a new study by the University of Oxford has shown.

Hailed by researchers presenting at the European Congress on Obesity in Dublin, the study led by innovation agency Nesta alongside colleagues from the University of Oxford emphasised the importance of design to the development of consumer choices and dietary habits – without “only having to eat green salads”. 

Carried out on a pool of approximately 23,000 adults across the UK, the randomised trial focused on examining the impact of 14 different key changes on a simulated delivery app, the results of which were subsequently compared with data produced by a separate control app. 

According to researchers, changes including the implementation of smaller, default portion sizes, the ready availability of nutritional information and the promotion of healthier restaurants and food options led to an average drop of 209 calories per meal and a significant reduction in food intake, results highly praised by the chairman of the National Obesity Forum, Tam Fry.

Speaking in conversation with The Telegraph, Fry stated that “This meticulous research ticks all the boxes. When the app allows the customer to avoid opting for unhealthy choices and directs them to lower calorie options, this is just what the doctor ordered.”

As of 2021, the national obesity rate was estimated to be as high as 25.9%, with a further 37.9% of England’s population described as overweight, statistics which have spurred government intervention within the food and hospitality sector in recent years with varying levels of success.

Yet following the decision in April 2022 to make calorie disclosure a compulsory feature of most restaurant menus as part of wider initiatives to curb rising obesity rates, backlash concerning the policy’s hidden impact on those suffering from eating disorders has remained unresolved.

According to Fry, it is thus “reasonable for the app to be able to hide calorie counts for people who find that they add to their eating disorders or, simply, annoy them”.

With popular delivery apps such as Deliveroo, UberEats and Just Eat currently raking in as many as 25 million customers a year, the cooperation of leading companies is an integral aspect of any potential implementation of the study’s findings.

Dr Bianchi, a member of the Behavioural Insights Team at Nesta, a British innovation-centred charity, and one of many working on the trial alongside colleagues from the University of Oxford has, however, said that research may be far from over, with “Testing similar initiatives with real restaurants and delivery apps […] important to assessing the long-term impact of these interventions in the real world.”

According to Bianchi, “Further research should also explore the best way to balance desired health impacts while minimising effects on businesses and on cost-of-living concerns for consumers.”

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