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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Insights into Self-Reported Dietary Intake

By Michael McBurney

The value of dietary intake questionnaires to estimate food intake is under debate. A systematic review of 45 dietary intake studies conducted with children aged 6 to 12y finds timing of the interview to be important. As the interval between food consumption and the dietary intake survey increased, accuracy of recall diminished. Children’s age, body mass index, social desirability, food preferences, and cognitive ability were also related to accuracy.

Among adults, self-reported intake measures have been found to systematically underestimate energy intake by hundreds of calories daily. The severity of underreporting varies by body weight (obese individuals are more likely to underreport) and food type (snack foods are more likely to be omitted). One contributor is that incorrect identification of the food which was consumed. To be accurate, the exact food and quantity consumed must be reported.

Because consumer preferences and nutrient content of branded products change with time, self-reported intake cannot be simplified to generalized food categories, e.g. ready-to-eat cereals, pizza, bread, salami, etc. Food and nutrient databases must be continuously updated to reflect a changing marketplace and across the entire spectrum of choices - from individual ingredients used in home food preparation, partially-prepared foods, and away-from-home and restaurant food choices. With hundreds of thousands of food and beverage products in grocery and mass market channels, without mentioning restaurant and food service choices, it is not surprising that consumers have difficulty remembering accurately.

Recall must be coupled with accurate nutrition information for food ingredient/products. This is a huge task. Self-reported measures of dietary intake are so inaccurate that researchers question their value in scientific research to understand actual energy intake and physical activity energy expenditure. Using the classic 3,500 kcal per pound of fat, an 800 kcal per day error equates to ~4 lbs change in body weight over just 4 days.

While analyzing trends may provide some insights, the activity is akin to driving a car using the rearview mirror. We need better tools to monitor nutrition status objectively.

Main Citation

Shaman SJ, Skouteris H, Powell MB, Watson B. Factors related to the accuracy of self-reported dietary intake of children aged 6 to 12 years elicited with interviews: A systematic review. 2015 JAND doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.08.024

Other Citations

Dhurandhar NV, Schoeller D, Brown AW, Heymsfield SB, Thomas D, Sorensen TIA, Speakman JR, Jeansonne M, Allison DB, and the Energy Balance Measurement Working Group. 2015 Int J Obesity doi: 10.1038/ijo.2014.199

Archer E, Hand GA, Blair SN. Validity of US nutritional surveillance: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey caloric energy intake data, 1971-2010. 2013 PLoS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076632

Heitmann BL, Lissner L. Dietary underreporting by obese individuals: Is it specific or non-specific? 1995 Br Med J doi: 10.1136/bmj.311.7011.986

Schakel SF. Maintaining a nutrient database in a changing marketplace: Keeping pace with changing food products – A research perspective. 2001 J Food Comp Anal doi: 10.1006/jfca.2001.0992

Larson N, Story M, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Secular trends in meal and snack patterns among adolescents from 1999 to 2010. 2015 JAND doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2015.09.013