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New study aims to develop population-based dietary assessment mobile app

Excessive intakes of saturated fat and added sugar are a leading cause of premature mortality among adults in the U.S., contributing to nearly 700,000 deaths each year, but nutritional research aimed at improving health is often challenging due to limitations in accurately tracking participants' food intake. A new University of Arizona Health Sciences-led study aims to develop a novel dietary assessment mobile app for researchers to use that will help study participants more accurately track their saturated fat and added sugar intake.

Traditionally, estimates of saturated fat and added sugar intake are measured in research studies using food frequency questionnaires or 24-hour dietary recalls. The problem is these methods are time-intensive and cognitively taxing for study participants and costly for researchers. They are also highly prone to recall bias and misreporting related, in part, to the reliance on a person's memory over long recall intervals and errors in portion-size estimation. They're not done in real-time."

Susan Schembre, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, UArizona College of Medicine - Tucson

Dr. Schembre explained that existing food-tracking consumer apps, while popular, do not link to research-quality nutrient databases. This makes them limited in their ability to be used in research studies.

The proposed dietary assessment method aims to address these limitations with "ecological momentary assessment" (EMA). EMA approaches involve recording events as they occur in a person's natural environment. The project, "Mobile Ecological Momentary Diet Assessment: A Low Burden, Ecologically-Valid Approach to Measuring Dietary Intake in Near-Real Time," is funded by a five-year, $3.3 million grant from the National Institute of Health's National Cancer Institute.

"Leveraging EMA to develop a new method of dietary assessment is of great significance to the field of human nutrition and will advance our understanding of eating behaviors as they naturally occur," Dr. Schembre said.

The app will prompt participants multiple times a day to report their recent intakes from a list of commonly consumed foods and beverages that contribute the greatest amounts of saturated fat or added sugar in the American diet. The resulting data will give researchers a more accurate picture of food consumption, allowing them to make better recommendations to improve health and wellness.

Traditional nutritional studies have used mobile apps to deliver brief, automated surveys to participants periodically throughout the day. These assessments are generally study-specific and not optimized for widespread use in the research community. The app Dr. Schembre and her team are developing will be the first research-quality, fully automated EMA-based mobile dietary assessment tool that can be used by researchers to collect more accurate dietary data.

"Dr. Schembre's highly innovative research addresses one of the most important topics in human nutrition - how to accurately measure what people eat when they are going about their normal, everyday lives," said Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine. "Better ways to answer this question are essential to finding new ways to improve the health and nutrition of individuals and communities."

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