Usual Dietary Intakes


Usual dietary intake is the long-run average daily intake of a nutrient or food. The concept of long-term average daily intake, or "usual intake," is important because dietary recommendations are intended to be met over time and diet-health hypotheses are based on dietary intakes over the long term. Consequently, it is the usual intake that is often of most interest to policy makers -- when they want to know the proportion of the population at or below a certain level of intake -- or to researchers -- when they want to examine relationships between diet and health. However, until recently, sophisticated efforts to capture this concept have been limited at best.

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Difficulties Posed By Intra-Individual Variation

24-hour recalls are considered among the most precise methods of assessing diet. They ask people to report everything eaten and drunk during the previous 24 hours and are rich in details regarding every item consumed (when, how, how much, with what). However, a single recall represents only a "snapshot in time" and one does not represent a person's long-term average daily intake. In fact, for many dietary constituents (especially those consumed episodically rather than daily), there is greater variation in intake day-to-day within a single individual than there is person-to-person within a population.

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The NCI Method

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and elsewhere have developed a method to estimate usual dietary intakes of foods and nutrients using 24-hour recalls. This method can be used to:

  • estimate the distribution of usual intake for a population or subpopulation;
  • assess the effects of individual covariates on consumption; and
  • predict individual intake for use in a model to assess the relationship between diet and disease or other variable using the statistical technique of regression calibration.

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National Data on Usual Intakes

We have applied the NCI Method for estimating distributions of usual intake to data from two recent cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative sample, to estimate means and percentiles of the distributions of food intake and the percentage of persons meeting recommendations for a range of sex-age groups in the U.S. population. Click the links below to learn more about the methods for analyzing the NHANES data, results and selected findings, acknowledgements, and suggested citations.

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Selected References

View our compilation of selected references for more information about the importance of estimating usual intake distributions, accounting for measurement error in estimating diet-health relationships, statistical methods, and combining self-report data with biomarker data.

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For comments and questions about the NCI Method for assessing usual dietary intakes, contact us via e-mail at

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