Saturday, September 3, 2011

Knowing What You Eat

There I was, searching for nutritional data on the internet, something I have done increasingly more often.  The usual cycle involved something like this:
  1. Google it
  2. Click on a few sites that sound legitimate
  3. Become dissatisfied with the results due to conflicting or inadequate data
  4. Pick the least worst result or go crawl through a government database
Today, I was looking up something pretty commonplace and simple.  I wanted to figure out the complete nutrition in a Rotisserie chicken.  I have found myself eating a lot of this stuff recently and I figured, what the heck, I might as well know what is in there.

The usual approach produced the usual results, but I found some slight disagreements in the data.

The Gold Standard for Food Data - The USDA

I am not a professional nutritionist, just someone concerned about their health with and willful enough to smash about the internet looking for what I want to know.  And in my wanderings, the most detailed and coherent data comes from the USDA.

As far as I can tell, the USDA is generally *the* reference for food data.  They have incredibly detailed information on foods, tabulating about 50 different quantities in the *abbreviated* database.  There are many options for accessing this data.  Unfortunately, although the current data was last update in 2010, the access methods appear to have all been created back in 1998-2000 (I guess we should thank the Clinton Administration for it).

The page of interest is in the Nutrients section of their site, under Products & Services.  If these links go bad due to a website revision, searching for "usda nutrient products services" should get you close to where you want to be.

On the Products & Services page, if you click on "USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference" you will pull up the page with the nifty stuff I mentioned.  Then you have lots of cool options:
Note: Only the "abbreviated" database can be acquired in Excel format at the moment, but it's probably more than enough data for your needs.  It's what I used.

As of the writing of this post, the current database is SR-23, updated in 2010.

Not All Sources Are Created Equal

When we care about an answer, we usually have the presence of mind to ask from where it came.  Well, that impulse should be even stronger for a site you might treat as a reference unto itself, like a nutritional database.

The nutritional database site,, queries the USDA database.  As of the writing of this post, it is using a slightly out of data USDA database, SR-21, which was updated in 2008.  Should you care?  Well, the same USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference page includes links to zip files of the yearly updates, which include PDF documents detailing the changes.  Some key changes from SR-21 to SR-23:
  • A few hundred new foods
  • Some new listings for beef to reflect additional cuts and grades
  • Scores of foods have benefited from additional analysis
  • Chicken breast data was updated based on a more detailed study (how timely!) has some other nice features for visualization and presentation of the data, like their caloric ration pyramid, nutrient balance plot, protein quality plot, etc.

If you think corporations are your best source for nutritional data on their foods, then I have good news for you. includes corporate information sources.  I am skeptical of the veracity of such data, since they have a clear conflict of interest, but that's me.

I personally favor the most current data with the least likelihood of conflict of interest, so I like the USDA database.  In a pinch, I would fall back on's site.

I have not found a smartphone application that I really like, but I admit that I have not looked very hard.

Putting the Data to Use

Well, if you really want to get the most out of it, I recommend picking up a food scale so you can actually measure what you eat.  Estimating the amounts can be tricky and even if you are comfortable with it, seeing how much food correlates to a given mass will make your estimates that much more accurate.

I swung by Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and picked up the Oxo Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-Out Display.  I chose it for the following feature combination:
  • 11-lb capacity: many only hold 5 lbs and I can easily see exceeding that, especially when you consider that includes the bowl, pan, etc.
  • Pull-out display: at first glance I thought it was goofy, but I quickly realized that even a standard dinner plate would make it difficult to read the display
  • Easy to clean: the buttons are sealed with a seamless cover, so a swipe of the sponge should take care of cleaning (and it does)
  • Removal stainless steel platform for ease of cleaning
  • Ability to display metric values
Sure, it's $50, but how many times do you plan to buy a kitchen scale and is it worth saving $20-30 over that time to get a crappy one?

As for using the data, that's really a personal choice.  As I said, I like the USDA with as a fallback.  Whether you open up a spreadsheet, scribble notes on scrap paper, or just track your daily totals on a dry erase board on your refrigerator, that is up to what works for you.

Closing Thought

Armed with portion size and nutrient data, you can make good, evidence-based decisions about what you eat and insure that you get what your body needs.

I wish you the best in reaching your fitness goals.

No comments:

Post a Comment