Public Release: 

Free Program On The World Wide Web Lets Users Analyze What They Eat

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Diet watchers now can go to the World Wide Web to analyze what they eat. The Nutrition Analysis Tool (NAT), developed in the University of Illinois hospitality management program, lets users analyze the nutrients in more than 5,200 common food items based on daily allowance data of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Researchers are working to add an energy calculator to the program for use by high school athletes at risk for anorexia and bulimia.

"NAT is a free program that allows anyone to analyze the food they eat," said former program staff member Christopher Hewes, now the assistant director of the U. of I. Agricultural Instructional Media Laboratory. "You fill out a brief personal profile, enter the foods and the portions you eat, then NAT quickly analyzes the food. There is nothing in it that says, 'Hey, you are not eating well,' but it lets you see if the fat content is high, for example, and it can provide you with alternative, healthier foods."

Public access of the tool has quadrupled to more than 250 people a day since it was put on the Web (at http://spectre.ag.uiuc.edu/~food-lab/nat/), Hewes said. NAT is being used in some U. of I. nutrition courses and a campus cafeteria. It also is being used in the Milford, Ill., schools to help educate young students about proper nutrition.

This fall, the U. of I. will work in the Champaign and Urbana high schools thanks to a Partnership Illinois grant targeting students in sports such as gymnastics, cross country and wrestling who are often prone to anorexia (loss of appetite) and bulimia (binge eating). The idea, said NAT co-developer Jim Painter, is to help at-risk athletes to balance their diet with the energy they burn during workouts. Painter will work with Jim Misner, a professor of kinesiology, on the project. (Partnership Illinois is an initiative to highlight and strengthen U. of I. outreach to the state.)

"Anorexia has been a difficult problem to handle," said Painter, a certified dietitian and doctoral student who manages the Spice Box, a cafeteria operated by seniors in the U. of I. department of food science and human nutrition. "You've got kids who just keep losing weight. No one has come up with a good approach with them. If we can channel their energy and give them a tool that lets them see what they are eating and how it relates to their energy levels, maybe they will be able to make better decisions about their nutrition."

Painter will speak about his use of NAT with the elderly during the American Society on Aging annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., March 21-26. Preliminary findings of research for his doctoral dissertation show that many senior citizens often miss the mark substantially in estimating the amount of nutrients they think they are getting in the foods they eat.

NAT is evolving, Painter and Hewes said. Eventually, they added, more items will be available for analysis, such as the fast foods many teenagers devour and many adults eat on the run.

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