The Benefits of Using a Food Tracker
A food tracker is one tool of many used to collect information about a person’s typical dietary intake, with the intent to identify food patterns, nutrient deficiencies, or chronic disease risk factors.
In a dietary recall, the subject is asked to recall what they ate over a period, usually 24 hours. The recall is a self-reported by the subject, or by a trainer interviewer asking questions that probe for a complete picture of intake. For this assignment, I completed three consecutive 24-hour recalls and recorded my dietary intake using a web-based food tracker that offered an extensive list of foods and automatically calculated my nutrient intake.
A dietary record is another method where the subject tracks their food intake as they consume it a specified period, usually three, five or seven days. Seven days was long-considered the “gold standard” in dietary record-keeping, but a research study has shown that participation and record accuracy go down over the course of time (Gersovitz M, 1978). Another study compared the validity of records over the course of 24-hours, three and five days and found that three-day records contained fewer errors and were the most accurate, making them the best overall choice for reported intakes (Crawford PB, 1994).
A Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ) is where subjects recall how often they eat foods from a checklist customized for their region and culture. The FFQ is the most useful method for large population studies.
When assessing an individual, both a dietary recall and a dietary record rely on the subjects estimated measurements of household units, which is often inaccurate and inconsistent. Another disadvantage is that individuals tend to over-report healthy foods and under-report unhealthy food. Subjects also tend to improve their food intake upon reflection, which causes the data to fail as an accurate sample of their typical diet.
Overall, short series of 24-hour recalls with a food tracker is the most effective method of assessing individuals because tracking dietary intake is time-consuming and requires high motivation on behalf of the subject to complete it, while the recall is less burdensome.
From Thursday, August 3 through Saturday, August 5, I entered my food and drink intake into the (now defunct) USDA Supertracker online food tracker (United States Department of Agriculture, n.d.). Afterward, upon reviewing the Nutrients Report, I found that two of my lowest nutrient intakes are iron (55%) and calcium (48%).
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2015), as a healthy 35-year old woman, my RDA of iron is 18 mg/day (with a UL of 45 mg/day), and I am getting on average 10 mg/day. My RDA of calcium is 1000 mg/day (with a UL of 2500 mg/day), and I am getting on average 487 mg/day (yikes!). I’m not surprised that I’m low in calcium and iron because I don’t consume much dairy or meat, but I am shocked that my iron is so low because I eat beans at nearly every meal.
Lucky for me, I have a lot of options! Calcium is abundant in cheese, collard greens, sardines, almond milk, orange juice, tofu, broccoli rabe, broccoli, kale, salmon, soybeans, bok choy, fortified oatmeal and English muffins, shrimp, figs, and oranges. I can incorporate more calcium into my food choices by putting canned salmon or sardines on my lunch salad, drinking a glass of chocolate fortified almond or cow’s milk after I work out, putting a little cheese on my eggs in the morning, and eating broccoli, collards or kale at least once a week.
Iron is rich in almost all meat and seafood, eggs, spinach, sweet potatoes, peas, broccoli, string beans, collards, kale, chard, whole wheat bread, enriched pasta, bran cereal, rye bread, strawberries, prunes and prune juice, dried apricots and peaches, tofu, beans, and lentils. I can incorporate more iron into my food choices by eating a small piece of meat, poultry or seafood a day, eating sweet potatoes, broccoli, collards or kale at least once week, having fortified bran cereal, rye or whole wheat bread for a snack, and having a small piece of dark chocolate after dinner (yay!).
Broccoli, beans, and tofu are rich in both calcium and iron. I can add broccoli florets to my lunch salad and learn to use tofu to fortify my cooking.
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2015), my physical activity goal is 150-299 minutes of moderate-intensity exercises to get health benefits and maintain my weight, and 300+ minutes to get extensive benefits, lose weight and keep weight off. The SuperTracker set my goal for 300+; my guess is that is the default goal for all users. While I didn’t meet that in the three days I tracked my physical activity, I nearly met the weekly 150-minute goal, coming in at 120-minutes of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise.
Personally, I like to exercise 4-5 days a week with a variety of walking, running, lifting weights and yoga. On an average week, my current activity level does meet the guideline for health benefits and maintaining weight. If I picked it up a little bit, I could experience the extensive benefits of 300+ minutes a week.
I recently had a physical examination, and complete metabolic profile blood test and the results for hemoglobin and calcium were within the healthy range. I believe that, while a 3-day dietary recall is a good indicator of typical food patterns, identifying deficiencies is most effective when used in conjunction with a blood test. The use of both gives a dependable idea of an individual’s diet over time.
Crawford PB, O. E. (1994). Comparative advantage of 3-day food records over 24-hour recall and 5-day food frequency validated by observation of 9- and 10-year-old girls. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 626-30.
Gersovitz M, M. J.-W. (1978). Validity of the 24-hr. dietary recall and seven-day record for group comparisons. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 48-55.
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015, December). Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Retrieved from Health.gov: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). SuperTracker. Retrieved from USDA.gov: www.ChooseMyPlate.gov