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Kinesiology researcher creates app to help individuals living with celiac disease and gluten intolerance

MyHealthyGut helps those with a very specific appetite to monitor symptoms and follow a nutritious gluten-free diet
September 22, 2016
Justine Dowd, health psychology researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, created the MyHealthyGut app to help consumers follow and monitor a gluten-free diet more easily. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary.

Justine Dowd, health psychology researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, created the MyHealthyGut app to help consumers follow and monitor a gluten-free diet more easily. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary.

“It is very difficult to follow a gluten-free diet because gluten is added to many foods as a preservative or a binding agent,” says Justine Dowd.

“It is very difficult to follow a gluten-free diet because gluten is added to many foods as a preservative or a binding agent,” says Justine Dowd.

For most of her life, Justine Dowd, PhD, has had problems with her gut. She paid close attention to the food she ate to try and determine what was causing the pain. Finally, at 25, she was diagnosed with having celiac disease and now she wants to help others who have ailing stomachs.

“My mom was diagnosed and I decided to take a test to see if I had the same thing. It was a relief to know that this was the cause of years of stomach problems,” says Dowd, health psychology researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology.

Dowd, along with colleagues Desiree Nielsen, a dietitian, and Darlene Higbee Clarkin, a holistic nutritionist, have created an app, MyHealthyGut, which is designed to help individuals living with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and potentially assist in the diagnosis of these conditions.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that requires strict adherence to a gluten-free diet in order to prevent detrimental health outcomes including bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and increased risk of intestinal cancers and osteoporosis.

App helps pinpoint food that causes problems

“It is very difficult to follow a gluten-free diet because gluten is added to many foods as a preservative or a binding agent,” says Dowd. “In fact, a review of the literature suggests that as few as 42 per cent of people with celiac disease follow a strict gluten-free diet.”

Right now it is pretty much a guessing game for those who have digestive struggles. “Paper diaries have been the most frequently used tool for self-monitoring dietary behaviours,” says Dowd. “But they aren’t the most effective. Diaries can be tedious, time-consuming and often inaccurate.”

To make monitoring diet easier, Dowd reached for what most Canadians have in their hands: a smartphone. “Research suggests 78 per cent of smartphone owners do not leave home without their mobile device. Furthermore, apps that focus on diet, food or calorie-counting are the second most commonly downloaded health and wellness apps,” says Dowd.

Huge potential for to help those with digestive struggles

One of the key functions of the app is a user-friendly diet and symptom diary. “E-diaries can work because people are most likely fill in dietary information at the time the behaviour or symptoms occur,” says Dowd. “It is also perfect for researchers as we can get data in a useable, readable format that we can use to improve diagnosis and management strategies for those struggling with digestive issues such as celiac disease and gluten intolerance.”

Not only does MyHealthyGut app help users monitor symptoms, it also assists users to follow a nutritious gluten-free diet. It lists 50 of the healthiest gluten-free foods, a seven-day nutritious gluten-free meal plan, tips on how to cook for someone with celiac disease and has functions to help plan meal plans and grocery lists.

Lori Welstead, a dietitian at the Chicago Celiac Disease Center, is hoping that the app will assist in the effective and efficient diagnosis and management of celiac disease.

“The app is extremely user-friendly and will empower individuals to find a link between their diet and gastrointestinal symptoms,” says Welstead. “The app provides realistic tips for managing a strict, lifelong gluten-free diet and may certainly increase quality of life for individuals with these tools and information at their fingertips.”

MyHealthyGut is available to download on iTunes.

Funding for this project was provided by Mitacs; the Calgary, Kamloops and Vancouver chapters of the Canadian Celiac Association; and the Calgary Foundation.