Telling fibs about the quality of our diet may be about to get harder. Scientists in the UK say they’ve developed a simple test to show whether we’ve eaten a healthy meal or loaded up on junk food.
The secret is in our urine. But a 5-minute test can unlock the biological markers created when different foods are broken down in the body.
The analysis can reveal whether we have eaten red meat or fish and indicate whether we are eating fruit and vegetables. The test is sensitive enough to indicate some specific foods such as oranges, grapes and leafy green vegetables.
It can also tell how much fat, sugar, fiber and protein a person has eaten.
Weight Loss Programs
The test has been developed by a team from Imperial College London (ICL), Newcastle University and Aberystwyth University. The work is still at an early stage, but the scientists behind it say it could have a useful role in monitoring people on weight loss programs and making studies into diet and health more accurate.
The scientists say evidence suggests people are unreliable when asked to record their eating habits. For instance, they tend to downplay the amount of unhealthy food and over-report fruit and vegetable intake. These inaccuracies may be even more widespread among people who are overweight or obese.
“This test could be the first independent indicator of the quality of a person’s diet – and what they are really eating.”
Healthy vs Unhealthy Diets
The study, published in the journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, involved 19 volunteers who ate 4 different diets, ranging from very healthy to very unhealthy.
The unhealthy option included high fat foods with few fruit and vegetables. The volunteers had sugary cereal for breakfast, fried sausages and waffles for lunch and fried beef burgers topped with cheese for their evening meal.
Those in the healthy group were given wholemeal toast and boiled egg for breakfast, steamed salmon with vegetables for lunch and grilled chicken and veg with whole-wheat pasta for supper.
The volunteers stuck to each of their diets for 3 days while scientists collected urine samples.
The samples were analyzed for compounds, called metabolites, produced during the digestion process. The information was then used to draw up profiles to indicate whether or not individuals had followed a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
One of the scientists, Professor John Mathers from Newcastle University, says in a statement: “For the first time, this research offers an objective way of assessing the overall healthiness of people’s diets without all the hassles, biases and errors of recording what they’ve eaten.”
A Future Tool for a Healthier Lifestyle
The researchers now want to refine the technology by testing it on larger groups of people, including individuals in the real world rather than under laboratory conditions.
“We’re not at the stage yet where the test can tell us a person ate 15 chips yesterday and 2 sausages, but it’s on the way.”
The scientists believe the technology may one day be used alongside weight loss programs. They say it could also help rehabilitate patients who need to follow a healthy diet after, for instance, a heart attack.
“Measuring what we eat and drink more accurately will widen the benefits of nutrition research, developing better evidence-based interventions to improve individual’s health and reduce obesity.”
Objective assessment of dietary patterns by use of metabolic phenotyping: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial, I Garcia-Perez et al, Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology
Imperial College London (ICL)