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


Lucy October 2, 2008 at 23:05

This is such an amazing idea, Sophie. Revolutionary. My brother is a very, very overweight man who is, co-incidentally, obsessed with his mobile phone.

Johanna October 3, 2008 at 04:02

Interesting idea – I like the idea of photos to help with thinking about colours in my diet and also portion size – it is something blogging has made me more aware of! But I am very mobile phone shy so my natural inclination is for pen and paper!

Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? October 3, 2008 at 20:17

nice idea! i’ve never been good at record keeping, food diaries or otherwise. but it’s making me think that maybe it’s easier to take a photo of receipts rather than saving the paper for doing my monthly budget… gotta love the cell phone.

Ellen October 5, 2008 at 16:24

This is much easier than a written diary and I think I’d be more compelled to whip out my phone than a pen and pad. Plus, I’m a visual person — must give this a try.

Kris C October 5, 2008 at 18:12

This is a great idea, and you could take it a step further with a free posterous account that you can make comments on and share with friends too. My current posterous account is tied to Twitter, which I wouldn’t want for this, but I might create a new one just for this purpose. Very cool idea, because how confronting is it to post pics of mounds of mashed potatoes or something? LOL!!
This would be a great way to share good, healthy recipes also. If anyone else wants to create a posterous account to do this, let’s connect as friends. I will post my account for it when I create it. Great idea!

Sophie October 5, 2008 at 20:53

Lucy – it sounds like this may well make a good project for your brother. The tricky bit is broaching the subject tactfully!
Johanna – so interesting what you say about blogging making you more aware of portion sizes and colours. I always think colours are a great way of making sure that you eat a variety of foods
Michelle – that’s a good twist on the idea; if you eat out a lot then receipt pictures could be handy for watching your waist and your budget. I’m sure there are so many things you could use a cellphone camera to track
Ellen – I think you’ve hit upon something there. It’s probably much more normal in this day and age to get your phone out at the table than a notepad and pen. And you’re right, this is a much better way to track if you are a visual person
Kris C – fabulous idea, sending it to a posterous account is a great way to be able to review the weeks eatings all in one go.
For those of you trying this out, feel free to post twitter/posterous account details here so that you can connect up

catering equipment October 6, 2008 at 11:05

Great idea. I remember showing you food diary to the dietician being stressful!
Good that tings have changed!

Jesse October 8, 2008 at 19:03

I was just thinking about doing this yesterday… not so much as a record or for health reasons. But you know the show You Are What You Eat? They put a person’s entire diet for a week on a table… I’ve always been curious what my diet for a week would look like? Really colorful or sort of bland? I don’t know, but it sounds like a fun project!

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