Improve your diet with your mobile phone!

by sophie on October 2, 2008 · 8 comments

what I've been eating

This New Scientist article, Snap-happy dieters reap benefits caught my eye recently over at SmarterFitter blog.  The dietitian and nutritionist’s favourite tool, the humble food diary, has been given a technological revamp using the mobile phone camera.

In the study described in the NS article a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recruited volunteers to compare the tried and trusted paper and pen style food diary against recording foods eaten using a mobile phone camera.  The study volunteers felt that their photographic diary was much more useful for understanding and changing their eating behaviours than the paper diary.  In particular, the diary keepers found that taking photos was particularly good at stopping what the researchers termed coyly termed “imprudent snacking”.

Why food diaries work
In the olden days, if your dietitian asked you to keep a food diary it was most likely because he or she wanted you to bring it in for them at a later appointment for them to bash you on the head with it.  “You ate how many biscuits!?!”, “surely you can see why you haven’t lost any weight yet”.  Thankfully such judgemental approaches are long gone and these days he or she may even tell you to keep your food diary to yourself. This is because the power of the food diary is not just in the information recorded therein, but in the act of recording itself.

The normal technique for keeping a food diary is to record everything that you eat and most importantly to record your food before you eat it.  This works in several ways:

  • a record of the food you have eaten provides a way to identify patterns in what and when you eat, enabling you to keep the good habits and kick the bad
  • the simple act of recording is an instant reality check, particularly where portion sizes are concerned; you get chance to stop and think if you really meant to eat that item of food and to reality check portion sizes
  • it’s a bit tedious noting down everything you eat before you can eat it. Can you really be bothered to go back and get another biscuit if you have to get your notebook out and write it down first?

Why a phone food diary is even better than a notepad

  • a picture is an excellent way of documenting exactly what you ate, effortlessly capturing a snapshot of both how much and what
  • you have your mobile phone with you pretty much all the time, so you can always record before you eat. With a note pad it’s tempting to “cheat” and promise to write it down when you get home
  • photos are far quicker and easier than writing everything down, portion sizes and all

Here’s what the phone diary users said:

“So I guess there was a little bit of a change that took place during the process. I didn’t take the extra potatoes and stuff like that because I didn’t want to take a picture again.”

“You know, you just sort of eat, and you don’t think about what you’re eating or how much you’re eating without seeing it that way. It kind of gives you pause.”

“I felt like if I had to write things down and take a photo, I was less likely to have a jumbo bag of M&Ms. It curbed my choices. It didn’t alter them completely, but who wants to take a photo of a jumbo bag of M&Ms and write it down?”

By looking at a whole week’s worth of pictures people also started to notice if their diet was balanced or not:

“Well, I also noticed that there weren’t too many greens in my diet, which means I should try and eat more greens, vegetables, and fruits.”

Food diaries aren’t just for weight loss
Of course I’m not suggesting that everybody should keep one, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a food diary isn’t only useful for weight loss (Kathryn had a good post about why a diet diary is a useful thing to do every so often).  Anybody can use a food diary to look at their diet from all kinds of perspectives:

  • how many portions of fruit and vegetables do you eat on a typical day?
  • is there a particular food that is making you feel ill?
  • how are your portion sizes – are you eating enough to maintain a healthy body weight?
  • do you have a regular routine or do you tend to miss meals and snack later?

You can use this food diary approach, phone or paper, to look at pretty much any personal dietary goal.

For fellow nutrition types reading this, the original paper is available online at the International Journal of Consumer Studies, DOI: 10.1111/j.1470-6431.2008.00725.x

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