A growing body of research supports photographing meals as an effective alternative to recording meals via pen and paper. In one such study, 33 ladies in the Women’s Health Initiative photographed their meals for one month. Their fat intake decreased significantly and their total caloric intake dropped modestly. The study’s authors concluded, Findings support the largely untapped potential of hand-held computers for improving diet monitoring and diet adherence. Photojournaling supports healthy eating by increasing self-monitoring and improving attitudes toward self-monitoring. Self-monitoring describes the process of being mindful, or paying attention to what we’re doing. When it comes to eating, this can translate into recording the food we eat, weighing ourselves regularly, or a host of other behaviors. Unsurprisingly, people who self-monitor lose significantly more weight than those who don’t. The magic exists not only in the finding that people who photographed their meals self-monitored more, but in that they felt better about doing so too. This positive feedback loop generates momentum and keeps our head in the game, encouraging us to rise to the challenge each and every day on our quest to improve health and body composition. Photojournaling works its magic through another simple yet important mechanism. Think about it:
- When would you photograph your meal? Before or after you ate it?
- What if you used paper and pen to log your meal? Would you write it in before or after eating?
Research confirms that as expected, we photograph meals before eating, yet we log meals into written food diaries after we eat. Since thinking about food choices matters more before we eat than after the damage is done, this uniquely positions photographic food diaries to alter attitudes and behaviors more effectively than written diaries. So photographing meals improves self-monitoring and increases forethought. But is it accurate? Can we, as health professionals, truly get a sense of what our client eats through a photograph? We know that people tend to underreport energy intake, a trend that exaggerates in overweight and obese populations. The answer? As the saying goes, Photos don’t lie.
- Photographs enhance self-report by revealing unreported foods and identifying errors not captured by traditional methods alone.
Bottom line: When used as the primary record of dietary intake, images provide valid estimates of energy intake, even better than traditional methods. While a great deal of evidence supports the use of photographing meals in our practice, a few questions remain unanswered:
- How valid is meal photographing as an assessment tool in children? Adolescents? The elderly? Large groups of people?
- Compared to keeping a text-based journal, do people maintain photo-journals for a longer, shorter, or identical duration?
- How long will clients continue to photograph their meals without any feedback from a health professional or interaction with peers?
- Do challenges make the process more engaging and fun?
Tell us your opinion. Do you think that photographing meals could improve your clients’ mindfulness and meal selection, knowing that you’ll see the images they upload? Have you photographed meals in the past, and if so, what was your experience?