Category: Healthy Eating

hands holding a nutrtion app scanning a bowl of salad

#EatingHealthy: Can Nutrition Apps Do the Job?

We’ve all seen the increase in the number of available apps to monitor lifestyle behaviors such as physical activity, sleep and stress. There is also clear interest in apps that monitor diet and nutrition. So, how do you know if a nutrition app will be helpful? In the last few years, millions of users have downloaded and installed nutrition-related apps. The latest research supports that “if the shoe fits” then maybe it is worth using! Mobile apps can provide an opportunity for assessing and improving nutrition by providing personalized information and instant feedback.  

What are the benefits? 

Apps can be an effective tool to evaluate and monitor eating behavior and diet-related health risk factors. Apps can provide autonomy and help people take charge of their nutrition choices. Monitoring food intake, setting goals, and viewing progress can all occur privately which may be appealing for those who desire less in-person contact with health care providers.  

What type of apps are available?  

The number and type of nutrition apps are only growing and with many being free, apps have the potential to reach large numbers of people world-wide. Here are some of the most common types of nutrition apps available.  

  • Calorie Trackers/Food Tracking/Food Diary Programs 
  • Macronutrient (carb, protein and fat) and Micronutrient (vitamins/minerals) tracking 
  • Recipe Builders or Meal Planning 
  • Restaurant and Grocery Finders  
  • Diet Specialty – Example: carb counting for people with Type 2 diabetes 
  • Food Allergy or Food Intolerances  
  • Hydration  
  • Grocery and Money Saving  
  • Prompts or Timing 
  • Nutrition Counseling and Education 
  • Mindfulness/Intuitive Eating 
  • Diet Specific – Example: Weight loss or Low sodium 
  • Condition specific – Example: Pregnancy nutrition  

Apps can offer a wide range of personalization and unique features that may help in managing conditions or reaching personal goals.  

What are the cons? 

It takes effort to enter in every bite of food. It can be hard to remember to enter your food intake and to remember what exactly you ate. In addition, some apps don’t contain all products in their database. Rather, they may include broad categories of foods. For instance, some apps are unable to distinguish between Kraft’s macaroni and cheese and Annie’s brand macaroni and cheese.  

Nutrition apps are also generally harder to use than physical activity monitors. Unlike the automatic activity tracking (passive data input) that comes with a Fitbit, Apple watch or a pedometer, entering food into an app requires time and energy.  

Another consideration is the cost. Some diet-tracking apps may not be transparent about extra fees and may not provide satisfactory customer support. Many are subscription based and require full price to unlock useful features. 

A major downside to using apps is that you miss out on professional insight/advice that comes from interacting with a well-trained health care provider. Depending on the app and your specific goals, communication with a professional may not be included. Further, some apps fail to providing long-term and in-depth support, which are key for sustaining behavior change. 

Finally, not all apps are evidence or science based. If an app promises to help you lose 20 pounds in one week, chances are the quality is poor. Apps tailored to specific needs are more promising for prolonged use and effectiveness. Lifestyle changes take time and while the short-term use of apps can be effective, the long term use is largely unstudied.   

The bottom line 

Apps can be a great tool to improve health through better eating and planning. Smartphones offer inexpensive options allowing for more engagement, empowerment, self-monitoring and communication with health care providers. Research has shown that apps can be superior to traditional methods at helping track food intake, making better food choices and losing weight 

So if you come across a helpful app, walk it around and it give it a try! Nutrition apps can help make life easier. A great place to start is with the MyPlate App that allows you to pick daily food goals, see real-time progress and earn fun badges through a simple program to start building healthy eating habits one goal at a time!  

Additional information on eating healthy, meal planning, tools and resources can be found at https://www.myplate.gov/.

 

Author:  Laura Young, Ph.D.

fresh produce with the fitness index logo

Food Insecurity: Defining and Addressing a Community Health Challenge

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as   “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”  Generally, this indicator refers to households who don’t have enough food, particularly healthy food, to eat due to a lack of money and other resources. There are slight variations in how different organizations define food insecurity, but all relate to households who lack healthy food.   

How big is the problem? 

During the  COVID-19 pandemic, a spotlight was focused on food insecurity as many individuals lost their jobs, schools closed resulting in children not getting meals there and other normal sources of food were curtailed, resulting in households being unable to obtain all of the food that they needed. The U.S. Census Pulse Survey results indicate that those who sometimes or often did not have enough to eat due to lack of resources increased from about 20% pre-pandemic to 28% by mid-2021.  

10 US cities with lowest rates of food insecurity in 2021

The Feeding America non-profit group produces annual “Map the Meal Gap” reports that include estimates of food insecurity at the city level.  Their most recent report (2020) was used as the measure of food insecurity in the 2021 American Fitness Index (Fitness Index). Feeding America uses U.S. Census Current Population Survey data to measure of food insecurity based on a well-established statistical model using unemployment rates, median incomes, racial demographics and other factors shown to be determinants of food insecurity. Across the 100 cities included in the 2021 Fitness Index, there was almost a three-fold difference in the percentage of households with food insecurity, from a low of 6.7% for Arlington, VA, to a high of 18.2% for St. Louis, MO.  

What is the impact of food insecurity? 

A considerable amount of research  has examined the physical and mental impact of food insecurity, including poor physical health outcomes, inadequate intake of key nutrients for optimum functioning and increased risk of chronic disease. Associations also exist between food insecurity and obesity along with poor glycemic control among those with diabetes. Of particular concern from a fitness perspective is that food insecure households may not consume an adequate amount of protein, a nutrient essential for a variety of bodily functions, including building and repairing muscles,  bone health and development and stabilizing blood sugar.  

Healthy cognitive,  psychological and emotional development among children is also dependent on them consuming sufficient amounts of nutritious food. America’s poor and near-poor children are at higher risk of lower academic achievement and behavioral problems. Food insecurity has been associated with poor psychological and cognitive functioning, higher probability of behavioral problems and higher levels of aggression and anxiety among children. Food insecure women are more likely to experience prenatal depressive symptoms than food secure women. Another consequence of food insecurity is poor sleep which can cloud thinking and lower energy, as well as decrease the ability to make good decisions. The profound impact of food insecurity on individuals’ physical and mental health made a clear case for adding this indicator to the Fitness Index.  

How is food insecurity addressed at a policy level? 

The federal government  recently expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and other safety net programs that support low-income children and mothers during the pandemic to help increase access to food among those in need. These programs provide more than half of all food support for households in need. The USDA has also funded innovative demonstration projects such as creating and distributing meal boxes that contain a week’s worth of groceries that can be delivered to those in need. 

What can city officials do to reduce food insecurity  locally?  

In addition to supporting existing food banks, pantries and other food providing programs, many city  officials have supported the development and maintenance of innovative and effective programs to improve access to healthy food. The following examples offer city officials, local businesses and residents an opportunity to get involved in reducing food insecurity in their communities. 

  • Organize food providing programs into a network that shares  information and resources as well as analyzes food need patterns to build capacity in advance of expected needs.  
  • Develop apps or websites  to make local food resource information readily available. Information about food access is a critical resource particularly for households newly in need. 
  • Establish mobile food pantries and farm produce trucks to carry needed food into the food deserts and to others in need of food.  
  • Partner with  farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs which are effective ways to ensure those in need have access to fresh produce while at the same time supporting local farmers.  
  • Start  community gardens, using city property when allowed, as public gardening spaces. Those interested are assigned an area in a shared garden where they can grow fresh fruits and vegetables. Seeds, water, tools and other resources are often provided or shared when available.  
  • Create a  food rescue program that gathers unused food from restaurants and similar food preparation organizations that might have otherwise been discarded, and distribute these food items to agencies that provide hot meals to those in need. Alternatively, food rescue programs can work with local farmers to glean what is left in farmers’ fields after their harvest. This rescues fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste in fields. 
  • Support organizations that help those in need understand their eligibility for benefits and help them navigate the application process. State agencies are responsible for distributing  SNAP and WIC benefits, but many eligible people are not enrolled because applying for these benefits can be cumbersome and confusing.  

While the problem is  large, there is much we can all do to reduce food insecurity across the country. Clearly, having access to healthy food is important in all cities, and innovative, effective programs can be used by city officials to improve the access.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, you can find help at  www.feedingamerica.org/need-help-find-food.  

 

Author: Terrell W. Zollinger, DrPH, Professor Emeritus, Indiana University 

Healthy Eating in America’s 100 Largest Cities

The ACSM American Fitness Index, supported by the Anthem Foundation, ranks the 100 largest cities in America on a variety of personal and community health indicators, including number of farmers markets and fruit & vegetable consumption.

The 2020 rankings  revealed that these cities average 18.7 farmers markets per 1,000,000 residents, with Washington, D.C.,  topping  the list with 82.6 farmers markets per 1,000,000 residents.  Farmers markets are not only an essential resource for access to fresh produce, but they also stimulate the local economy. Check out tips for shopping seasonally at your local farmers market here.  Need assistance locating your nearest farmers market?  Use this handy search tool from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

farmers markets per 1M residents, top 10 list

 

When it comes to fruit and vegetable consumption,  many  of the ranked cities fall significantly below the recommend serving intake. Adults are recommended to consume at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit each day.   The average rate of residents meeting these recommendations across the ranked cities in 16.3% and 33.5%, respectively.  Three cities rank in the top 10 for both indicators:  Nashville, Tn., Arlington, Va.,  and San Jose, Ca.

 

Why you need to be shopping at the farmers market

It’s National Farmers Market Week (August 3-9)! As a measure of access to fresh fruits and vegetables with the most nutrients, the ACSM American Fitness Index® considers the number of farmers markets in each metro area.

Farmers markets can provide fresh and locally grown produce to metro areas where access to healthy food can be limited.  Produce that travels thousands of miles to make it to the supermarket looses freshness and nutritional quality. Buying local ensures produce is available to you at its prime freshness and nutritional value.

Farmers markets also provide a great excuse to get in some walking, carrying groceries and meet people in your community.

Need more reasons to visit your local farmers market?

Here are the Top 10 Reasons to Shop at a Farmers Market according to Nutrition.gov.

10.  Farmers markets are easy to find.

9.  SNAP and WIC cards are accepted at most farmers markets.

8.  You can try a new fruit or vegetable!

7.  Farmers often have good recommendations on ways to prepare their products.

6.  Buy foods and see how they fit with ChooseMyPlate.

5.  Farmers markets can be important anchors for vibrant communities.

4.  It’s a great way to get your kids involved.

3.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are full of antioxidants and phytonutrients.

2.  Shopping at farmers markets supports your local farmers and keeps the money you spend closer to home.

1.Freshly picked ripe food is at its peak in flavor and nutrition.

target goal

The report scores the number of farmers’ markets in a metro areas based on the target goal of 13.100 per 1,000,000 residents.  How did your MSA do in 2014?