If you’ve ever kept a food diary, you know how striking it is to see that list of everything you ate staring at you in black and white. But how many of us are truthful when we record our daily food intake? And if we’re not, how useful is this tool?
I happen to like keeping track of my food intake using an app because it’s convenient and like many folks, my phone is always handy and it sure beats taking a notebook along wherever I go. But, even as a dietitian, I’m often surprised at just how little food it takes to reach my daily caloric allotment!
I recently read a report via Sciencenewsline of a study conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina. The article discussed how the oft-cited, CDC-funded national nutrition research project called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) may be invalid due to food journaling errors by the participants. NHANES relies on self-reported food and beverage consumption over 24 hours, as well as physical exams, to guage the health of the population. The data is used far and wide by researchers, the government and public policy groups, as well as nutrition and health organizations for comparison and planning purposes.
So what was the problem? It turns out that the data they collected from peoples’ food diaries resulted in “physiologically implausible” caloric intakes. According to the report, the participants under-reported their food intake—quite significantly in some cases—with the most overweight men and women under-reporting by roughly 700-850 calories per day. Gee really? Is anyone surprised that people were altering their food journals (whether or it was intentional or not). Who among us really wants to ‘fess up to those extra calories we’ve consumed?
Of course, when it comes to our health behaviors, fudging to make ourselves look better isn’t uncommon. We embellish and conceal lots of things when we think someone will review it and pass judgement on us (think smoking or illegal drug use, number of alcoholic drinks per week, supplements the doc might frown on, how often we exercise). Luckily, keeping track of our food intake doesn’t have to involve doctors, friends or even family. You can certainly track what you eat without anyone even knowing. And when something is private you remove the reason for fibbing. Being honest about your food intake can be helpful in a number of situations. Probably the most common use for food journaling is weight loss, where tracking calories eaten and expended via exercise can shed light on why you might be gaining (or at least not losing) pounds. Beyond that, the nutrient breakdown of your food intake might be interesting for people with certain health conditions like diabetes, or for those trying to alter the balance of their diets—to get more protein and fewer carbs for example. With pie charts and graphs, all this info is easy to understand.
You don’t have to spend money to track your diet and learn to live a healthier lifestyle. Thereare free online sites, such as ChooseMyPlate.gov, where you can track your personal food intake, that of your entire family and even perform a recipe analysis on your favorite casserole. Sparkpeople.com and FitDay.com are two other free options you might also want to check out.
If you want to be able to use your hand-held device while you’re eating, there are several popular apps you can use. MyFitnessPal and Sparkpeople are two apps that are free and easy to use. These apps allow you to track your food intake and exercise so you can monitor daily calories and your fat, carbohydrate and protein intake. The cool charts and graphs that it spits out are fun, too. The best part? There is no one looking over your shoulder and judging you. It’s all just for you—and using these tools might just help you make better food decisions in the long run. And after all isn’t that what you want?