Free Online Tools Can Make Your Diet Healthier

New study: Log your food habits online, and you're more likely to develop healthy eating habits.

January 12, 2010

People who get online help get better at eating healthy food, according to a new study.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Americans are getting a raw deal in the produce department. Less than 25 percent of people living in the U.S. eat the minimum five servings of fruits and vegetables a day recommended by the National Cancer Institute. But a new study investigating online food tracking found that using your computer to track your eating habits will help you enjoy more fruits and vegetables while making long-lasting healthy menu changes.


THE DETAILS: Researchers followed about 2,500 people ages 21 to 65 for a year, breaking them up into three groups: All visited a website with general health advice, but the second and third groups accessed a website that helped them track their diets and was tailored to their dietary needs and preferences. The third group also received individualized counseling by email. The researchers found a significant increase in the fruits and vegetables eaten, particularly among the branch of participants that also received motivational emails.

WHAT IT MEANS: Fruits and vegetables are nutritional superstars because they offer a wide variety of nutrients, in addition to disease-fighting phytochemicals. And accumulating evidence is linking produce to protection from certain cancers and other chronic diseases. But it can be hard to include enough healthy food in your diet when you're constantly tempted by fast-food fare and other heavily marketed, unhealthy choices. This study suggests that online tools can help you keep track of what you eat so that you can see where your diet falls short and can make changes accordingly. Just don't spend too much time at the computer, since exercise is another lifestyle factor that can cut your risk of health problems.

Here's how to use technology to help you eat a more healthful diet:

• Figure out what you need. There are several recommendations for how many fruits and vegetables you should eat each day, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calling for men to eat nine servings a day, and women, seven. To get a more precise estimate, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Fruits and Veggies Matter site to figure out how much produce you should eat each day, based on your age, sex, and activity level.

Read on to see how your computer and iPhone can help you eat healthy.

• Keep track. There are plenty of free or inexpensive digital tools to track your diet and help you to lose weight while eating a healthy diet. For starters, check out Prevention magazine's free online Health Tracker, where you can create a food log and track nutritional info, daily activity, and even mood and energy levels.

The Eat This, Not That! iPhone app ($4.99, iPhone App Store) helps you track calories, build a more healthful grocery list, create a weight-loss plan, and find simple food swaps that will shave hundreds of calories off your daily food intake.

And don't forget the Rodale Recipe Finder, which contains thousands of free recipes that are searchable by health concern, meal type, and more. You can also save your favorite recipes and print out shopping lists.

• Don't let it be boring. If you or your family members are getting bored with the typical produce lineup, try out some of these tips from Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokesperson American Dietetic Association:

1. If you've had a long day and can't deal with chopping, washing, and preparing vegetables, buy them frozen or fresh, already washed, and cut-up. Add them to any- and everything possible, such as soups, slow-cooker meals, black beans, chicken or vegetable stock, salads, or rice.

3. Plan a dinner around a fresh local vegetable, such as artichokes, asparagus, eggplant, acorn squash, or whatever's in season at a local farmer's market. Try stuffing it, breading and sautéing, or adding a dipping sauce. Check the Rodale Recipe Finder for cooking ideas.

4. Fresh salsas are a great way to include not just tomatoes, but also peppers, cucumbers, onion and leeks, fresh herbs, jicama, and root vegetables like parsnips, and carrots. Dip with corn chips or vegetable chips.

6. Dried beans and peas are vegetables, too. Cook them, puree, and season with new spice combinations, using cumin, turmeric, mint, basil, garlic, and oregano, and you've got a great spread to enjoy on a warm pita.

• Pick greener produce. When shopping for produce, try to buy organic whenever possible. Organic growing methods keep harmful hormone-disrupting chemicals out of your body, the soil, and water—and add greenhouse-gas carbon to the soil instead of the atmosphere. Follow our money-saving tips when buying organic, such as buying in season and in bulk to get the best deals. If you avoid buying fresh food because it tends to go bad in your fridge, check out our story Never Throw Food Away Again.

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