Diet histories

The diet history method is a detailed retrospective dietary assessment that obtains details of individual foods, and comprehensive information about foods eaten less regularly [1]. It is used to describe dietary intakes, behaviour, or both over months, a year, or during a specific period in the past. The outcomes measured by dietary history are described in Table D.12.1.

Nutrient intakes obtained by a dietary history are often compared to those obtained by a weighed diary for the purpose of validation. In a small subsample from the Survey in Europe in Nutrition and the Elderly Concerted Action (SENECA) study, for example, reported energy intakes were higher but less than energy expenditure measured by indirect calorimetry [6, 8].

One study compared energy intakes obtained by weighed dietary records and diet histories to energy expenditure estimates obtained by doubly labelled water in children and adolescents. Although mean energy intakes were biased towards overestimation, the differences were small and the authors concluded that the energy intake obtained by a diet history was more representative of habitual intake than the weighed diet diary [2].

Table D.12.1 Dietary outcomes assessed by dietary history.

Dietary dimension Possible to assess?
Energy and nutrient intake of total diet Maybe
Intake of specific nutrients or food Maybe
Infrequently consumed foods Yes
Dietary pattern Yes
Habitual diet Yes
Within-individual comparison Maybe
Between-individual comparison Yes
Meal composition Maybe
Frequency of eating/meal occasions Maybe
Eating environment Maybe
Adult report of diet at younger age Yes

A dietary history is a retrospective structured interview method consisting of questions about habitual intake of foods from the core food groups (e.g. meat and alternatives, cereals, fruit and vegetables, dairy and ‘extras’) and dietary behaviours (e.g. skipping breakfast, dieting).

The interview technique can use open-ended questions to determine foods and drinks consumed at each meal, followed by specification of amounts. This is followed by a ‘cross-check’ to clarify information about usual intake in the past 3, 6, or 12 months, depending on the aims of the assessment. It can also be combined with a 3-day record or a 24-hour recall.

Usual portion sizes are generally obtained in household measures with/without the use of photographic aids. If a visual aid is used, the approach may necessitate a face-to-face interview and it would be challenging to adapt diet history assessment in a telephone interview or self-administered diet history.

Depending on the participants’ characteristics and the aim(s) of dietary assessment, the interview may put weight on specific dietary items or behaviours. For example, if the target population is pregnant women, diet history often aims to capture use of dietary supplements and experience of food craving. If the research aim is to identify a common dietary habit of people admitted to a hospital during a heatwave or an infectious outbreak, specific food consumption in a specific period may be assessed retrospectively.

Diet history is suitable when the assessment aims to capture detailed information about habitual food intake or food intake at a specific life stage or a specific time period. For example, a large international cohort study, the SENECA [6,8], recruited elderly adults and assessed their diet during one month preceding an interview.

Researchers may be interested in a diet during a specific period. Examples include a diet during pregnancy [7], diets of patients diagnosed with a foodborne illness [4], and diets of victims afflicted by a disaster. In these instances, a diet history method with a structured checklist is well suited to capture dietary exposure during a specific time period.

A few prospective cohorts have been using diet history methods, including Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) [3] in the United States and Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study [5] in Finland. Diet history would be challenging to implement in a self-administered manner. Practically, diet history requires trained interviewers and it remains unclear whether it would provide more valid and reliable measures of dietary exposure than food frequency questionnaires. For a large-scale prospective study, diet history is not likely to be the primary method of choice.

Estimates of nutrient intakes follow a general procedure that is common with other dietary assessment tools. The following steps are undertaken to estimate nutrient intakes:

  1. Mixed meals, if recorded, should be converted to single food items as much as possible. Single food items are supposed to be matched with those in a food composition table.
  2. Convert a portion size to gram amounts or amounts in a standard unit (ml for liquids) of each dietary consumption. Frequency should also be standardised to consumption per day or per week.
  3. Match all foods and ingredients with items in a food composition table.
  4. Obtain nutrient intakes from each food, by calculating a product of an amount of each item consumed per day or per week and nutrients contents per amount of each item.
  5. Obtain nutrient intakes per day per individual by calculating a sum of intakes of the nutrient per day per individual. This calculation can be specific to intakes in breakfast or different settings in a day.

Key characteristics of dietary histories are described in Table D.12.2.


  1. Individuals need not be literate
  2. Covers usual diet in detail, so only one interview is necessary for the particular time period under consideration
  3. Details of individual foods are obtained
  4. Information is obtained about foods eaten less regularly
  5. Energy intake and most nutrients can be estimated reasonably accurately


  1. The resulting data depend heavily on the skill of the interviewer
  2. Interview-based methods may result in observer bias
  3. The individual may not remember past food consumption and be subject to recall bias
  4. It may also be difficult for the individual to assess portion sizes of past meals
  5. This method is difficult for those with erratic eating habits such as shift workers
  6. Individual food coding is necessary; this is a time consuming process requiring trained staff, thus making it expensive

Table D.12.2 Characteristics of dietary histories.

Consideration Comment
Number of participants Up to a few thousands
Cost of development Low
Cost of use Medium
Participant burden Medium
Researcher burden of data collection Medium
Researcher burden of coding and data analysis Medium
Risk of reactivity bias No
Risk of recall bias Yes
Risk of social desirability bias Yes
Risk of observer bias Yes
Participant literacy required Yes
Suitable for use in free living Yes
Requires individual portion size estimation No

Considerations relating to the use of dietary history for assessing diet in specific populations are described in Table D.12.3.

Table D.12.3 Suitability of diet assessment by dietary history in different populations.

Population Comment
Pregnancy Suitable
Infancy and lactation Requires proxy
Toddlers and young children Requires proxy
Adolescents May require proxy
Adults Suitable
Older Adults Older individuals may become fatigued and unable to complete
the interview in one session; a typical session lasts 60-90 minutes.
Ethnic groups Suitable

Among all the dietary assessment methods, the dietary history relies most heavily on the skills of the interviewer. He or she should possess knowledge of local foods and the food environment, and possess good communication skills. The interviewing style should be non-judgmental, non-directive, and probing, for example.

  1. Trained interviewer
  2. Checklist and materials to record responses
  3. Trained diet coders
  4. Nutrient database and analysis program

A method specific instrument library is being developed for this section. In the meantime, please refer to the overall instrument library page by clicking here to open in a new page.

The diet history method has been implemented in a face-to-face interview and with an open-ended format. Further development of this style has not been apparently sought for in the field of nutritional epidemiology. However, with advancement of technology, a remote face-to-face interview may be conceivable to implement the diet-history assessment.

  1. Burke BS. The dietary history as a tool in research. J Am Diet Assoc. 1947;23:1041-6
  2. Livingstone MB, Prentice AM, Coward WA, Strain JJ, Black AE, Davies PS, Stewart CM, McKenna PG, Whitehead RG, Validation of estimates of energy intake by weighed dietary record and diet history in children and adolescents. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992;56:29-35. PMID:1609757
  3. Liu K, Slattery M, Jacobs D, Cutter G, McDonald A, Van Horn L, Hilner JE, Caan B, Bragg C, Dyer A et al. A study of the reliability and comparative validity of the cardia dietary history. Ethnicity Dis. 1994;4:15-27. PMDI:7742729
  4. de Valk H, Vaillant V, Jacquet C, Rocourt J, Le Querrec F, Stainer F, Quelquejeu N, Pierre O, Pierre V, Desenclos JC, et al. Two consecutive nationwide outbreaks of Listeriosis in France, October 1999-February 2000. Am J Epidemiol. 2001;154:944-50. PMID: 11700249
  5. Rissanen TH, Voutilainen S, Virtanen JK, Venho B, Vanharanta M, Mursu J, Salonen JT, Low intake of fruits, berries and vegetables is associated with excess mortality in men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study. J Nutr. 2003;133:199-204 PMID: 12514290
  6. van Staveren WA, de Groot LC, Haveman-Nies A, The SENECA study: potentials and problems in relating diet to survival over 10 years. Public Health Nutr.2003;5:901-5. PMID: 12633513
  7. Thomson AM, Diet in pregnancy. I. Dietary survey technique and the nutritive value of diets taken by primigravidae. Br J Nutr. 1958;12:446-61. PMID: 13607949
  8. de Vries JH, de Groot LC, van Staveren WA, Dietary assessment in elderly people: experiences gained from studies in the Netherlands. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009;63 Suppl 1:S69-74. PMID: 19190649