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Making the Most of Mobile Technologies to Estimate Dietary Intake

Principal Investigator: Carol J. Boushey, PhD, MPH, RD
Department of Foods and Nutrition
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN 47907

[Beginning May 2011]
Epidemiology Program
University of Hawai'i Cancer Center
Honolulu, Hawaii

What's the problem?

To accurately monitor food and nutrient intakes and identify those at risk as well as those who are meeting recommendations, it is necessary to precisely estimate intakes. That has consistently posed a challenge because people do not always report accurately and because dietary assessment instruments contain some degree of error. In addition, completing and analyzing self-report instruments can be burdensome for respondents and researchers.

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How has this research addressed the problem?

Dr. Boushey and her colleagues are taking advantage of the near-ubiquitous use of mobile telephone technology to develop, implement, and evaluate a quick, convenient, and accurate method for collecting dietary information.

The project involves several components: 1) developing automated image analysis methods that will identify foods and beverages and estimate the quantities of these items, 2) modifying the USDA Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS) to support the system's data, and 3) developing user-friendly mobile telephone applications that fit the lifestyle of its users.

Developing Automated Image Analysis Methods

This method, a mobile telephone food record (mpFR), uses a cell phone's camera to capture images of a food or beverage before and after consumption. (The "after" image shows whether or not any food or beverage remains after consumption, and if so, how much.) These images are sent to a central server for processing. Dr. Boushey's team has developed methods by which the images can be identified using the food or beverage's unique characteristics, such as color and texture, and contextual information, such as time of day. The volume of the food or beverage is estimated by using pre-set geometric templates. Images of the system are available at www.tadaproject.orgExternal Web Site Policy.

Modifying FNDDS to Support the System's Data

USDA's FNDDS food composition database does not contain complete density information, which is needed to translate volume estimates in cubic centimeters to gram weights. Therefore, Dr. Boushey's team is developing algorithms to predict densities that can be added to the FNDDS. This will allow investigators to match the foods and beverages captured by the mpFR system with their appropriate nutrition information.

Developing Mobile Telephone Applications

Dr. Boushey and her colleagues also have created an easy review application that allows the user to confirm or change the automated labels provided on the foods and beverages. The resulting data, electronically provided to researchers, detail foods and beverages consumed along with energy and nutrient intakes.

Testing the System

The investigative team developed a prototype of the mpFR that runs on iPhone 3Gs, and tested it in a convenience sample of 57 men and women, ages 21 to 65 years. This pilot was designed to see how well the technology works and to help quantify the error associated with the food and nutrient output. Study participants used the mpFR during a controlled meal session, and 24 (42%) returned for a second meal session. Participants were able to capture usable images for analysis and responded favorably to the process of collecting these data. They also provided useful feedback for improving the accuracy and ease of use of the mpFR.

In a second study, 12 free-living men and women, ages 20 to 58 years, used the mpFR for 3 non-consecutive days to capture reported energy intake. The difference between the mean reported energy intake and mean estimated energy requirements was -337 kcal (p=0.165), or 87% of estimated energy requirements. These results reinforce the use of image-based dietary assessment in clinical and research settings and its potential for leading to more accurate accounts of dietary intake.

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Significance of the research & results

This study is one component of NIH's Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative (GEI). GEI, begun in 2007, supports the development of new tools to determine the genetic and environmental roots of common diseases. Dr. Boushey's research is one of the studies within the GEI's Improved Measures of Diet and Physical Activity Program Area, which the National Cancer Institute co-leads with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Results will contribute significantly to current efforts to refine and improve the assessment of usual dietary intake, both by improving the accuracy of self-reported dietary data and by reducing the burden on respondents and researchers of data collection and analysis.

Moreover, this project represents a unique and highly productive collaboration by a range of scientific disciplines. To address the complexities of this project, Dr. Boushey has assembled an investigative team that includes experts in electrical engineering, information science, nutritional epidemiology, food composition databases, stable isotopes, and statistics.

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Recent related publications of interest

Boushey CJ, Kerr DA, Wright J, Lutes KD, Ebert DS, Delp EJ. Use of technology in children's dietary assessment. Eur J Clin Nutr 2009 Feb;63 Suppl 1:S50-7. [View Abstract]

Six BL, Schap TE, Zhu FM, Mariappan A, Bosch M, Delp EJ, Ebert DS, Kerr DA, Boushey CJ. Evidence-based development of a mobile telephone food record. J Am Diet Assoc 2010 Jan;110(1):74-9. [View Abstract]

Zhu F, Bosch M, Woo I, Kim S, Boushey CJ, Ebert DS, Delp EJ. The Use of Mobile Devices in Aiding Dietary Assessment and Evaluation. IEEE J Sel Top Signal Process 2010 Aug;4(4):756-766. [View Abstract]

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Last Modified: 03 Sep 2013