Want feedback about what you eat? Log your diet online

Access Science: FoodBook24 is testing a tool that will track eating habits, which should fuel deeper nutritional research

It is hoped that the online approach will make it easier for people to be honest about what they eat. Photograph: Thinkstock

It is hoped that the online approach will make it easier for people to be honest about what they eat. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

What did you eat yesterday? Filling in the answers online could help researchers to figure out what Ireland is eating.

The FoodBook24 project is testing out an online tool to capture the nutritional habits of the nation, says Dr Eileen Gibney, a lecturer at University College Dublin’s school of agriculture and food science.

“We have developed an online tool that allows people to recall their diet and get feedback on what they are eating,” she says. “And we want to use the data to look at population intakes so we can get a sense of what the nation is eating at any given time.”

If it proves effective the online approach could offer a handy way to keep track of national nutrition patterns between larger surveys, says Gibney.

“Every 10 years or so we have large national nutrition surveys that need a very significant amount of funding and require a lot of effort,” she says. “In between those surveys there is probably a need for some good nutritional surveillance, and potentially this is an online tool that could be used as a cost-effective and fluid way of collecting the data. But first we need to see if it works.”

Food recalls

To contribute to the project users enter details about their health, lifestyle and location and do two “food recalls” (where you recall everything you ate the previous day) two weeks apart, as well as filling in a food-frequency questionnaire. The survey includes prompts for portion sizes, supplements and extras such as sauces and spreads.

There are numerous apps on the market already that allow people to track their food intake, but Foodbook24 is designed with research more in mind, says Gibney.

“It asks the questions that are important to get quite an accurate nutritional intake assessment,” she says. “Then we can offer some feedback that is checked by a nutritionist and emailed to the participant, such as how many portions of fruit and veg that they consumed – taking into account that only one should be a juice and there should be a citrus fruit in there too.”

To assess the online approach researchers at UCD and University College Cork will compare how information collected through FoodBook24 measures up against large, national surveys, and Gibney hopes that the online approach will encourage people to tell it like it is.

“If you had a nutritionist sitting in front of you and you were asked about your diet, you might say what you think they want to hear, but filling it in online people might feel comfortable enough to be more accurate and use it as a resource to see how their diet is and whether they need to change it slightly.”

The online tool also collects data about the person’s health and location in order to analyse trends around dietary habits and food choices, she adds.

The research project, which is funded through the Department of Food, keeps step with an international move towards gathering nutritional data online, says Gibney, and she hopes that the data will help to fuel deeper research into national and international dietary trends.

“We would ultimately like other researchers to use the online tool as well, and because the data have been collected in the same way, it means you can look at larger groups and do deeper analyses,” she says.

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