Penn State develops ‘digital dietitian’ to help people make better choices


A new program explored using immersive virtual reality to help fill the role of a digital dietitian, which may eventually improve the nutrition care process, according to a recent analysis.

The analysis about the program, Immersive Virtual Alimentation and Nutrition Application (IVAN), developed at Penn State, was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior

IVAN used virtual reality headsets to make the user feel like they are speaking to a real nutritionist in an office setting. The program walks the user through interactive activities designed to teach them about nutrition concepts like portion size and calorie density.

A team of seven experts, including registered dietitians and education specialists, evaluated the IVAN program across 14 different areas, including navigation, nutrition education content, and relevance of the educational content.

“The program scored highly across all 14 domains,” said Travis Masterson, PhD, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and director of the Health, Ingestive Behavior, and Technology lab at Penn State, in a statement, “which suggests it was received positively overall and the experts felt it would be useful to users.”

The areas in which the program scored best were faithful viewpoints, as it was seen to reflect a real environment; the relevance of educational content, demonstrating that the educational material was useful; and close coordination of action and representation, meaning that the interactions with the food felt realistic.

“Registered dietitians are trained to help individuals improve their diets and are able to meet and work with people to improve their daily habits in a very individualized and personal way,” Masterson said in a statement. “But they often end up spending a large portion of their visits teaching basic nutrition concepts, which is not always an effective use of their time or skills.”

In the future, according to Masterson, the program may be able to save clinics both time and money while freeing up the time of their registered dietitians to spend more time providing individualized feedback and targeted goal setting.