myfood24 – the online tool helping researchers get teenage kicks?

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

The myfood24 project is backed by nearly £1m in funding from the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC). © / Rawpixel Ltd
The myfood24 project is backed by nearly £1m in funding from the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC). © / Rawpixel Ltd

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An online method of collecting diet data could help unlock intake information for teenagers, a group often neglected in government policy, say UK researchers.

There has been mounting interest in the use of online platforms and apps​ to collect big nutrition data.

Using online surveys standardises questions and questioning sequence, makes processing data easier, produces immediate results and strengthens confidentiality – and all that for less time and money.  

Yet according to researchers from the myfood24 consortium – a partnership between the University of Leeds and Imperial College London in England – most technology-based methods have been developed with adults in mind.

Backed by £992,267 (€1.2m) in funding from the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC), the four-year myfood24 project sought to validate its online dietary assessment tool with 75 British teenagers aged 11–18.

A paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition ​offers the first proof of accuracy for the tool with this group by testing it against face-to-face recall interviews.

They found the two methods brought back similar results for energy intakes, macronutrients and most reported nutrients.

"Adolescents are considered to be one of the most challenging age groups in terms of reporting dietary data, as they are more likely to have unstructured eating habits, they tend to eat away from home more than adults and they find the methods used to report food intake difficult to complete,"​ the researchers wrote. 

"As adolescents are often the most enthusiastic in terms of adopting new technology and using the internet, using a novel approach to assess the food intake of this age group through the use of technology may motivate and engage adolescents in measuring individuals’ diet for research or personal use."

Dr Charlotte Evans, a lecturer in nutritional epidemiology at the University of Leeds and one of the researchers behind the project, said the team hoped the tool would be used to fill data gaps on adolescent diets that meant the group were often neglected in government health policy.

“Teenagers are often forgotten about because they’re an in-between group – they aren’t kids but they aren’t adults either.”

Doing it for the kids 

Collecting diet data for children often means asking parents about shopping and eating habits.

Teenagers however were a trickier group to quantify since they had more control over their diets than children but were unlikely to do their own household food shopping like adults.

They were also hard to engage, Evans said, compared to children who tended to be more enthusiastic about participating in a study.

Those teenagers that were willing to take part may not be representative, she added.

The results of the recall food diaries are being checked against biomarkers of nutrients like vitamin C.  

She hoped the tool would be an “agile way”​ to address data and policy gaps by taking the surveys to teenagers via a link on social media or email.

“This really does mean we can engage and reach teenagers.”

As the project comes to an end in June this year, the team hopes the tool will be used as a method in larger future studies. 

Source: British Journal of Nutrition

Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1017/S0007114516000593

“Agreement between an online dietary assessment tool (myfood24) and an interviewer-administered 24-h dietary recall in British adolescents aged 11–18 years”

Authors: S. A. Albar, N. A. Alwan, C. E. L. Evans, D. C. Greenwood and J. E. Cade

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