Are All Short Stacks Created Equal? Pennington Biomedical App Helps Dieters Avoid Sabotage

Released: Thursday, July 13, 2017

Are all short stacks of pancakes, mounds of mashed potatoes or handfuls of trail mix created equal?

Appearances can be deceiving. Whether they're prepared or all natural, foods vary tremendously in calories and nutritional value depending on composition, the recipe and portion size.

Recently, research has exposed another issue: No matter how hard we try, people are terrible at gauging portion sizes. That difference between what you think you've eaten and what you actually ate can be significant enough to sabotage any diet.

"Self-report methods, such as food diaries, are commonly used to estimate food intake," explains Corby Martin, Ph.D. "However, they tend to be inaccurate because people tend to underestimate their energy intake by as much as 37%."

And, he should know. As director of the Ingestive Behavior Laboratory at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Martin conducts interventions to improve food intake, encourage exercise and reduce body weight.

So, if eyeballing food portions doesn't work and measuring out every morsel you put in your mouth isn't practical, what's a dieter to do?

For the last several years, Martin has explored the potential of mobile health technology to help people eat better and live healthier lives. With collaborators, Martin developed the Remote Food Photography Method (RFPM) and the SmartIntake smartphone app to measure food intake.

Validation studies demonstrated that this app is able to accurately estimate the energy intake of participants. The system is successful because the participants' food pictures are analyzed by dieticians, who can then counsel participants about how to meet their daily nutritional goals based on their images of foods.

Furthermore, "We found 94% of participants preferred the RFPM to pen-and-paper food diaries," Martin reports.  "But, just as importantly: We found that the SmartIntake app may help people make healthier food choices and stick to their diet."

It turns out a digital picture is worth more than a 1,000 words: It's worth its weight in pounds lost and knowing how much you are eating.

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit