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How can we best assess the healthiness of our diet?

I have recently written a couple of blog posts about diet and mental health - "Emerging research on diet suggests it's startlingly important in the prevention of anxiety & depression" and "So what dietary advice should we be following - for psychological as well as physical health?" 
An obvious related question is "How can we best assess the healthiness of our diet?"  There are various possible responses to this request.  How best to do it depends on time, accuracy needed and resources available.  Many governments have responded to this challenge by producing various versions of "The healthy eating plate" - see the excellent Harvard School of Public Health version illustrated in the post "So what dietary advice should we be following - for psychological as well as physical health?" and freely downloadable from their website.  It may well be worth sticking the healthy eating plate picture on the fridge door or the wall so that it's readily available as a reminder.  The linked "Healthy eating pyramid" can be thought of more as a shopping list reminder.  I have put together additional text from the Harvard website as handouts about the plate and about the pyramid.  As a health professional asking clients about their eating patterns, I will often simply show them the healthy eating plate picture and ask them how one of their typical main meals compares with the diagram.  This can then lead to a discussion about possible changes they can make and here the more specific information on the additional plate and pyramid handouts can be helpful.

In my own work, I only rarely go beyond this quick-and-easy (and of course, very approximate) assessment approach.  If you want to dig deeper into more thorough (but typically much less practical) assessment methods, the chapter on dietary assessment methodology to be published next month in the third edition of "Nutrition in the prevention and treatment of disease" is excellent.  The 2008 second edition of this 30 page book chapter is freely downloadable from the web, but if you're desperate to be bang up to date you can read virtually all of the third edition chapter by using the "search inside this book" facility on, for example, the (currently pre-publication) Amazon bookstore details.  The authors, Frances Thompson & Amy Subar,  

For more motivated people, there are helpful interactive tools on the web.  Examples include the US Department of Agriculture's "Supertracker: my foods, my fitness, my health" which allows users to record and get feedback on their diet, weight & exercise.  

More to follow ...

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