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Halifax team develops mobile app to encourage eating right

Darien Cail-MacDonald takes a bite out of an apple. His mom says he’s ‘kind of picky’ when it comes to vegetables.
Darien Cail-MacDonald takes a bite out of an apple. His mom says he’s ‘kind of picky’ when it comes to vegetables. ERIC WYNNE • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

When it comes to creating mobile apps, the guiding principle is keep it simple.

Things aren’t so straightforward when you’re trying to get an eightyear- old to eat his broccoli.

“There are some challenges,” said Cody Cail of her son Darien Cail-MacDonald, with a chuckle. “He’s kind of picky. With fruit he’s pretty good, he likes oranges, strawberries.”

But when it comes to veggies, Darien keeps to a few favourites such as spinach, carrots and celery, she said from her Halifax home Thursday.

She and her husband Kenny have come with strategies like incorporating veggies into pizza and pasta sauces.

“We’re encouraging him to try one bite and that’s OK, we’ll come back to it again,” Cail said Health promotion expert Sara Kirk said the trick with kids and healthy eating is “start it early and start it young.”

“You look at our food environment and very rarely do we see vegetables or fruit served,” said Kirk, a professor in Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance, in an interview Thursday.

That’s despite decades of 

Canada Food Guide messaging about the number of servings of vegetables and fruits we and our kids should be eating every day. (It’s now 10 by the way, even though Kirk said she’d be happy to see people getting five.) A couple of years ago, Kirk and her research team turned their attention to the phones and tablets that have become such an integral part of a family’s busy day.

“People tend to go out with their kids to do soccer, hockey, swimming, and what that means is they’re not actually eating the meal at home, they’re having drive-thrus and what have you,” Kirk said. “So healthy eating is kind of being knocked to the side.”

The researchers figured an app that promoted healthy eating would knock it back into a family’s daily routine.

With a grant from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Kirk teamed up with the Halifax marketing firm We Us Them to put mobile technology to work on the problem.

“We took what we knew and we took the components that people liked and we stripped it down, if you like, and the brilliant brains from this organization actually translated what was in my head, which is somewhat messy a lot of the time,” she said with a laugh, “into this lovely app that’s very engaging.”

Ashwin Kutty, president and CEO of We Us Them, said the company has developed a lot of health-care apps and information overload can be problematic.

“One of the things that we find is (customers) talk about a lot of the clinical research and

the clinical evidence and tools that come with it,” said Kutty, who was interviewed with Kirk at We Us Them’s airy offices on Spring Garden Road. “So taking all of those and converting them into an app is very boring. . . . People don’t want to download it, and if they do, they download it once and they look at it, they play around with it and they don’t use it.”

Kutty’s creative tech team tackled that problem by keeping it simple and incorporating facets of the most popular app genre — gaming. The result was Froogie, which features animated characters such as Sly the Fly, who buzzes around that veggie you should be eating faster, Red the Hot Chili Pepper and Kirk’s favourite, Puff the Magic Dragonfruit.

“We built it . . . like a game where it’s motivational and inspirational,” said Kutty, whose company has been a full-service marketing agency for seven years and employs 12 people.

“You finish one fruit or vegetable, and through a week, if you maintain your intake levels, it unlocks another character. So you get to now explore what (the next) character does.”

Froogie came online last year and it’s been a hit on services such as iTunes and Google apps.

“In the first two weeks, we had about two million views of it, about 3,000 downloads of the app itself,” Kutty said. “It was being looked at in about 46 countries.”

Its profile was heightened after Apple recommended it as a new and notable app. Most recently, Froogie received a Gold Davey award from the International Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts, which honours creative works from smaller media, marketing and public relations agencies.

Kirk is hoping Froogie’s success will attract more funding so the app can be adapted to incorporate user feedback. Whether it’s technology or continuing the message of eating your vegetables and fruit through traditional mediums, she said something must be done to improve our children’s eating habits.

“Fewer than one in 10 are eating sufficient fruits and vegetables; it’s a dire situation,” she said, noting that poor nutrition not only makes children more vulnerable to physical conditions such as heart disease and cancer, but mental illness as well.

“We know our kids, they’re not active enough, they’re sitting too much, they’re not eating enough of the foods that are protection against the chronic diseases that we’ll see in the future. . . . About a third of all cancers are caused by diet and lifestyle. If we want to see our kids thrive and be healthy into the future, then we have to start getting those habits instilled in them younger.”

Cody Cail welcomed any tool that helps parents improve their kids’ eating habits.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said of the app. “Anything like that you can do to motivate (your child) helps.”

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