Self Reported Dietary Questionnaires: Are They Effective?

whey proteinBoth nutritionists and researchers use self reported dietary questionnaires in order to obtain information from individuals regarding their nutritional intake. The accuracy of this data is invaluable for interpreting the data supplied by the individual, and therein lies the problem. Studies that have assessed the accuracy of self reported nutrition questionnaires have shown that individuals consistently under report energy intakes, and may also provide inaccurate dietary assessments unless prompted by specific questions. This has lead some researchers to conclude that such methods, when applied to a research setting, are pseudoscience, and that such methods have created an erroneous set of nutritional recommendations akin to fraud. While these may seem strong words, there is no smoke without fire, and in this case some of this opinion is valid. Certainly researchers must be very cautious when analysing self reported questionnaires. However, it may be the case that they take such questionnaires at face value.

dietary survey

Dietary questionnaire have inherent problems associated with their use. This relates to the human tendencies to provide inaccurate information to questions. Underreporting energy intake is a known problem with self-reporting nutritional questionnaires.

One of the advantages a nutritionist may have over a researcher is that they deal with a single individual. This allows the nutritionist to spend time with the individual and this attention can provide clarity regarding any ambiguities in their dietary questionnaire. Asking questions and spending time with the individual is pivotal to advancing the questionnaire to a useable form so that data becomes information. However, in research, this is likely not possible and so the data on the questionnaire must be taken at face value. This therefore translates the errors present in the questionnaire onto the information provided in the study, and this leads to erroneous findings and recommendations. Research into the accuracies of questionnaires have been performed and improvements to methodologies have been made. However, the inherent problems of the human tendency to provide inaccurate responses based on conditioning and misunderstanding remain, and so the basic underlying problems of research questionnaires has not been eliminated.

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Subar, A. F., Freedman, L. S., Tooze, J. A., Kirkpatrick, S. I., Boushey, C., Neuhouser, M. L., Thompson, F. E., Potischman, N., Guenther, P. M., Tarasuk, V., Reedy, J. and Krebs-Smith, S. M. 2015. Addressing current criticism regarding the value of self-report dietary data. Journal of Nutrition. 145: 2639-2645
Robert Barrington

About Robert Barrington

Robert Barrington is a writer, nutritionist, lecturer and philosopher.
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