Food Diary App Users Give Good Advice, May Help Each Other Lose Weight

Couple Taking Photos
More people are starting to use food diary apps like The Eatery. A new study now finds that there's no harm in doing so either, as users' feedback was typically helpful. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Almost anyone who has actually tried to diet can say that a big part of their diet was keeping a food diary. They’re good for keeping us in touch with our daily routines, the foods we eat, and how our subsequent behavior is affected. But in an age of social media, where everyone wants to take pictures of their food, it was only a matter of time before scientists thought it would be a better idea to use these photos to encourage better eating. A new study shows that dieters who post pictures of their food, and get crowdsourced advice about its healthiness, may be more inclined to stick to their diets.

The study, conducted by researchers in the U.S. and Finland, looked at how accurate advice was on the social media app The Eatery, which allows users to post photos of their meals for others to comment on, and rate through a healthiness scale (fat to fit). Although the app was made to make dieting easier — taking a picture only takes seconds, writing in a journal takes much longer — the researchers wanted to see whether the advice users submitted fell in line with dietary guidelines.

So, the researchers enlisted three public health students, all of whom had taken courses in nutrition, to look at 450 photos from 333 users of the app living in either Europe or the U.S. The students were asked to look at the photos and rate them on a scale that the researchers created, which was based on the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. With this system, meals lost a point when they contained foods with sodium (cheese) and refined grains (white rice), and gained a point when they contained foods with vegetable oils (olive oil) and vegetables, among other things. In addition to all of this, the students were told to categorize each food they saw in the photos in order to establish an idea of how cohesive the students’ mindsets were, and to predict how users of the app would rate foods.

The researchers found that the average healthiness score between the students “was highly correlated” with the scores given by the app’s users. “The findings suggest that a large group of untrained peers can provide feedback comparable to trained raters who are familiar with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines using a basic rating scale,” they wrote. They also found that app users were good at rating healthier foods higher and unhealthier foods lower, thus encouraging the person posting photos to continue on a path toward healthier eating.

“Diet tracking mobile apps have held promise as a way to increase the frequency of diet self-monitoring, but these apps still require that participants enter foods and beverages consumed,” the researchers wrote. “Crowdsourcing has potential as a way to improve adherence to dietary self-monitoring over a longer period of time.” The researchers’ next step, they said, is to examine how effective these apps are in getting people to lose weight.

Source: Turner-McGrievy G, helander E, Kaipainen K, Perez-Macias J, Korhonen I. The use of crowdsourcing for dietary self-monitoring: crowdsourced ratings of food pictures are comparable to ratings by trained observers. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. 2014. 

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