- Brian Bender, PhD
Nutritional Assessment (Tools & Methods for Personalization)
The top nutritionists are deepening their arsenal of sophisticated tools and services to provide the most accurate and most personalized nutritional assessment for their clients. In this article, we’ll discuss the top nutrition analysis tools that solve a wide variety of issues and use-cases.
Some of the nutrition analysis tools we’ll discuss are more appropriate for larger facilities with the resources to acquire equipment that can be used by a large number of clients. Others are more easily acquired and applicable to sole proprietors or even individuals looking to analyze their own nutritional needs.
There are many exciting new technologies coming down the pipeline, but this review will stick to nutrition analysis tools currently available on the market. It will also cover a wide array of nutrition-related assessments, covering tools for assessing various aspects of nutritional health, current nutrition screening tools, and tools nutritionists can use to personalize and predict future nutritional needs.
Nutritional Assessment Methods
Dietary Patterns and Nutritional Intake Assessment
One of the first exercises between a nutritionist and her new client is a discussion about past and current eating habits.
This helps the nutritionist understand what, if any, problems with eating habits exist and where to personalize the client’s needs.
The 24-hour recall is a technique used by nutritionists, researchers, and some health organizations looking to capture a snapshot of someone’s typical dietary patterns.
A 24-hour recall simply requires the client to list everything they ate over the past 24 hours.
Yet if you’ve ever tried to remember everything you ate and drank yesterday, you can imagine where problems might exist with this technique.
We often fail to remember everything we ate. And we also do a poor job of estimating quantities of the foods and drinks we’ve consumed.
While still very useful, some error should be expected.
Food-frequency questionnaires are another form of dietary recall that uses lists of common food and beverage items where users indicate how often, and at times how much, they eat of these various food items.
Although useful for some applications, the poor level of detail can make personalized guidance difficult to create.
Food journals (or food diaries) are one of the most popular options and are widely used. Whether using a digital app or simply a handwritten journal, the exercise of food journaling requires the client to document, in real-time, the food items and quantities they eat throughout a set period of time.
Documenting more information, like the time of day of food and beverage consumption, and the feelings surrounding their consumption, can help you further curate your guidance.
From this information, you can calculate the quantities of macronutrients and micronutrients your client typically eats and pinpoint areas that are out of balance or if deficiencies might be present.
See How to Track Macronutrients
Hydration tracking is also critical for maintaining healthy dietary and exercise patterns. One of the most widely used methods of hydration assessment involve feelings of thirst and urine color. Though, more precise urine assessments, such as use of urine specific gravity, are important for more accurate use-cases.
Weight and Fat Distribution Analysis
Assessing weight and fat distribution is an important early step. Beyond the scale, there are a growing array of tools to better assess weight and body fat that will provide better information on diet, nutrition, and health than a crude measurement of BMI (although, BMI is not a bad place to start).
Keeping things simple, a measuring tape should be in the bag of nutritionists tools for measuring waist circumference. Measuring waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratios provide a better assessment of health risk status than BMI. This is because central adiposity (fat around the midsection) appears to correlate more strongly with chronic disease risks like cardiovascular disease and diabetes than BMI.
The World Health Organization’s Guidelines on measuring these features explains the correct techniques and placement of the measuring tape required for accurate and consistent readings.
Progressing slightly in complexity, body-fat calipers can also help assess body fat distribution. By measuring skin folds at precise points on the body and using formulas developed to interpret the results, calipers can help assess body fat percentage for distinct body parts.
Nutrigenomics and DNA Testing
Nutrigenomics refers to the relationship between nutrition and your genetics. This is an exciting but early field of applied science. Some research is starting to shed light on ways your unique genome interacts with your diet to help personalize strategies for certain nutrition goals.
For example, some research has associated the FTO gene with appetite, total caloric intake, and obesity. Having your genome sequenced in order to identify which allele - or gene variant - you possess regarding the FTO gene has been investigated as a strategy for optimizing one’s macronutrient intake profile.
In multiple analyses of the POUNDS LOST study, a 2-year randomized control trial studying different diets for weight loss, those with the FTO risk allele (A) lost a statistically significant greater amount of weight and fat mass on a high-protein diet versus a low-protein diet. These individuals also reported a decrease in appetite and food cravings on a high-protein diet versus a low-protein, whereas a low-fat or high-fat diet did not produce statistically significant results for any gene variant.
Therefore, someone who learns they possess the (A) allele for the FTO gene (present in roughly 44% of the POUNDS LOST cohort), might find greater success trying to lose weight on a high-protein diet.
Nutritional Assessment through Microbiome Analysis
Microbiome analysis is firmly rooting itself into the health and wellness field as a source of insight into illness, nutrition, and even longevity.
Much like nutrigenomics, the science is exciting but still very early. Not all of the claims you will read are agreed upon by the scientific community yet.
Nevertheless, there are some applications where you may want to start adding microbiome assessments into your toolbox of nutritional assessment tools.
Much like DNA testing, the tools available for microbiome testing are typically home-testing kits that are mailed off and assessed in labs elsewhere and run as a service. The common format requires you to take a small stool sample (often as small as a cotton swab size), place it into a test tube or vial, and mail it back to the lab testing service provider.
The reports and analyses are then returned after testing. Again, take some of these results with a grain of salt. It's worth digging into the literature to assess the state of our knowledge on any topics covered in the results.
Nutritional Assessment Tools
Weight and Fat Distribution Analysis
Although measuring tape and calipers can go a long way for assessing body fat distribution and health status, more sophisticated equipment exists. For example, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (often abbreviated as DXA or DEXA) can provide more granular data on the distribution of body tissue type throughout the body.
And full-body air displacement tools are fast, safe, and effective at determining body composition, too. These tools measure air density in order to precisely calculate weight, fat mass, and fat-free mass in minutes. One example of a product that may be available at the clinic-scale is the Bod Pod.
Nutritional Intake Assessment Tools
Researchers are working on different techniques to enable easier nutritional assessment tools and devices from many angles. However, few options currently exist on the market.
Read more about the ins-and-outs of nutrition tracking!
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