Weekly text messages can help improve nutritional literacy: study

Text messaging can be used as a means of communicating the basics of daily eating requirements that, despite public service efforts, often go overlooked, and yet are at the root of making food choices, a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found.

Nutrition information labels are useless, they say, if consumers don't understand how many calories they need in a day and ignore the 2,000 calorie per day benchmark on which they are based, which might or might not apply to them, but is the framework provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Currently, the FDA mandates that all packaged food in the US reveals its nutritional information on a standardized label. They have also proposed that chain restaurants with a minimum of 20 outlets do so on their menus and drive-through displays, although according to researchers, this might not be enough to guide the public.

"Given the low level of calorie literacy, simply posting calorie counts on menu boards is not sufficient," said study leader Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in the US state of Maryland.

Working with a group of 246 adults, the research team set out to survey their nutritional knowledge by publishing calorie content on cafeteria food without giving any idea of recommended daily intake.

Fifty-eight percent of participants, which included college graduates and those with graduate degrees, were unaware of the FDA-recommended 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

They divided participants at random into three groups who either received a weekly text message, email or nothing at all about daily calorie intake needs.

Participants receiving information got the message every Monday night for a total of four weeks, with the idea that the first day of the week provides a fresh opportunity for change, a model provided by an associated nonprofit called the Monday Campaigns.

After the four-week period, participants' knowledge of daily caloric needs was assessed by means of a survey. Those who had received the text messages were twice as likely to take the 2,000 calorie FDA recommendation into account, the survey showed.

"When people know their calorie 'budget' for the day, they have context for making healthier meal and snack choices," says Dr. Cheskin.

And consumers can use personal technology to remind themselves; Cheskin pointed out that smartphone apps could be part of a 'mix' of information consumers can use to inform their choices.

Another recent study by researchers from Arizona State University seems to support the use of such tools: in a small study it concluded that diet tracking by means of either smartphone app Lose It or the memo function had better results in terms of persistence and daily adherence than using a pen-and-paper journal.

The study was published in the journal Health Promotion Practice.