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Sheila's Nutrition Digest Vol. 6 - How to Assess Your Diet
By:  Sheila Kealey   (2005/05/10)

Sheila's Nutrition Digest Series: In this new series, XC Ottawa member Sheila Kealey will help athletes choose the best foods for performance and overall health. Sheila has a Masters in Public Health and works in the field of nutritional epidemiology as a Research Associate with the University of California, San Diego.

Do you ever wonder how the food you eat translates to calories, fat, carbohydrates, or protein? Or question if your diet is lacking important vitamins or minerals? But maybe you prefer to savour your Starbuck's caffe mocha and maple oat scone without knowing you're consuming almost 900 calories and 44 grams of fat . . .

Certainly it's not desirable (or advisable!) to convert all fine dining experiences into numbers, but getting an idea of how your typical diet stacks up can be important for your health, and is especially helpful if you're considering making some changes. For example, athletes may want to know if they're consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel and recover from their workouts, or people trying to lose weight would benefit by knowing where their excess calories are coming from. So. . . where do you start?

Analyzing dietary intake used to be a tedious task and almost exclusively the domain of nutrition professionals, who had to look up individual foods in tables, record this data, and add up the amounts of each nutrient. Advances in technology, the Internet, and widespread availability and quality of food databases has changed all that. Nutrition professionals and consumers alike can benefit from new software and web-based programs that make tracking and analyzing dietary intake much easier.

Here's a brief guide to the options you might have, from expert advice to figuring things out on your own.


Consult a dietitian, who can perform a detailed nutrient analysis and provide informed feedback and advice on improving your diet. To find a dietetics professional in your area consult one of these resources:


If you decide to track what you eat, you'll quickly realize that it can be a time consuming task! You'll need some obsessiveness to carefully monitor and measure every morsel that passes through your lips, and time and patience to record this data. Need inspiration? Consider that cyclist Lance Armstrong meticulously weighed all his food at times to fine tune his diet to match his performance goals.

You have a number of resources to help you, from food labels to sophisticated software. Diet analysis programs vary greatly in number of features, capabilities, and the extent of their food databases.

Resources (Free)

  • Food Labels. For specific items, consulting the "Nutrition Facts" label on packaged foods can be helpful. Just be sure to get the "Serving Size" right (it isn't always intuitive!) since this is the basis for the rest of the information on the label. Although you can learn a lot from labels, you'll need more resources to accurately estimate your average dietary intake.
  • USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference - www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/. This nutrient database is where most of the books, software, and web sites that provide dietary information obtain their data. You can download free software to search the database on a Windows PC or a handheld personal digital assistant. This site is helpful for looking up nutrient values of specific foods, but it would be labor-intensive to figure out your daily diet.
  • NutritionData.com (www.nutritiondata.com) This site has plenty of features. Tracking your daily consumption with the "Pantry" lets you generate reports to help evaluate your diet. The food database is fairly up to date and contains plenty of brand names and restaurant foods. Other helpful information includes a search function to look for foods high in specific nutrients.
  • FitDay (www.fitday.com) FitDay is a user-friendly site that can help you track and analyze the foods you eat, as well as the exercises you do on a daily basis. FitDay analyzes diet, exercise, and weight, and generates graphical reports on many nutrients to help you monitor your diet.
  • Nutrition Analysis Tool (NAT) (www.nat.uiuc.edu/mainnat.html) NAT helps you analyze your current diet and compare it against your nutritional needs (based on U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances). If your diet is lacking in certain nutrients, you can get recommendations of foods to add to your diet to compensate.
  • Nutridiary (www.nutridiary.com) This is a thorough and informative tool that is easy to use. You'll find plenty of graphing and tracking options to help you visualize and interpret your dietary intake data.
  • Nutrawatch (www.nutrawatch.com) This is an easy to use diet analysis tool with a variety of nutrition reports based on your intake. You may need to upgrade to the pay version to get all the features you want.
  • MyPyramid Tracker (www.mypyramidtracker.gov) The US government recognizes the value of dietary self-monitoring with their new online dietary assessment tool, which provides information on your diet quality and physical activity status. You can automatically calculate your energy balance by subtracting the energy you expend from physical activity from your food calories/energy intake. MyPyramid Tracker translates the principles of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Assess the foods at popular fast food restaurants:

Online and Downloadable Programs ($$)

There are many diet analysis programs that you can buy - this is just a sampling. Personal use versions cost anywhere from $15-$75, professional versions to manage many clients range from $500 to $1000, while the main research-based program costs over $8000. Many programs let you download a trial version to see if it suits your needs.

Personal Use

Professional Use/Research

Whether you check the nutrition of a food occasionally, or decide to monitor your daily diet more closely, you have a tremendous amount of resources at your fingertips to make informed decisions about the foods you choose to eat. Research shows that some form of dietary self-monitoring is a helpful strategy to improve your diet, so your efforts may be rewarded by better health!


(Printable Version)

Nutrition researchers have written thousands of publications evaluating the most accurate techniques to assess what people eat. This is an important field of research since many dietary recommendations and research findings are based on these assessments.

Studies show that most people eat a lot more than they realize. Research also shows that even when monitoring their diet, people tend to underreport what they eat. Underreporting is so common that some studies use statistical strategies to correct for this error.

Here are some tips to ensure that you get the most accurate snapshot of your diet:

Days to Record: The optimum number of days to obtain your average dietary intake is three weekdays and one weekend day. The days don't have to be consecutive, but try to choose 24-hour periods that will most clearly and accurately reflect your usual dietary pattern. If four days is too daunting, select one day of the week that you consider to be the most representative of your usual food intake.

Write it ALL down. Keep a small notebook handy and write down all foods and beverages consumed. Be as inclusive as possible.

Be Specific. The more specific you are with brand names and measurements, the more accurate your analysis will be. Whenever possible, measure the food. For example, for breakfast, instead of recording "bowl of Cheerios," record 1.5 cups of Cheerios with 250 ml nonfat milk. Consider me asuring the volume of your favorite bowl to save you some time.

Don't forget about . . . condiments and "extras" since these can really add up. Small things such as butter on toast, milk in coffee, mayonnaise on a sandwich, dressing on salad, sugar on cereal, handfuls of pretzels, etc.

Be patient when entering items into your software. It will take much longer as you first figure things out (and some software is more user friendly than others!). Most programs allow you to create "recipes" standard meals, or frequently consumed foods, which makes subsequent data entry sessions much faster.

Interesting Reading. . .
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