Home Page. Article: Nutrition Software: 101 Questions to Ask Before you Buy
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IF YOU’RE NOT USING NUTRITION SOFTWARE, you're probably earning less than you should be earning. You're likely to be working too hard, charging too much, and serving too few clients. Your work is probably less accurate and less thorough than it should be. Without nutrition software; you're less productive than you could be. And if you're less than fully productive, you're leaving honest money on the table. The good news is that it doesn't have to be like this. Modern nutrition software programs offer you superior accuracy, more comprehensive client reports, and the ability to get much more done in far less time. This translates into an elevation of your client's perception of your expertise, the ability to give your client’s more for their money, the ability to handle more clients, and a better return on your bottom line. You’ll also enhance your reputation as a dietitian who is knowledgeable and competent with the latest techniques, tools, and technologies.

Dollar for dollar, no other investment you make will impact your income the way your choice of nutrition software will. So the question isn't "Should I be using nutrition software?" The real question is "Which nutrition software package should I be using?" Today's professional nutrition software offers you high accuracy; comprehensive reports, worldwide file synchronization; Internet-friendly options, on-line questionnaires, royalty-free Food Logging software for clients, and a host of capabilities that simply didn’t exist until recently. This is all good, but since most software products won’t do everything for everyone, you may need to make some trade offs. You’ll do a better job of selecting the best nutrition software package for your needs if you take a moment to familiarize yourself with the capabilities available in the latest software. And if you don’t get every last feature you want from the nutrition software package you select, you’ll at least know which capabilities you decided to forgo.

So. Enough with the benefits of using nutrition software – let’s jump right into the 101 things you ought to consider before selecting nutrition software.

Major Capabilities
There are many capabilities that all nutrition software programs must do to be called nutrition software programs. What separates the top program are the high end capabilities that set them apart from their competitors. Here are a few questions to ask:

Does the software produce Nutrition Facts Labels? Often, there is an extra charge for the software if you want to be able to create Nutrition Facts Labels - these prices can range from $600 to $5000 extra and more. Some companies offer label making services on-line with a subscription plan. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's good to know the situation before you buy.

Does the software offer Internet-Based File Synchronization? File synchronization means that your data - your recipes, food logs, client information, etc.) is synchronized across all the computers you use to access your nutrition software data. This feature also enables you to share your data with colleagues. Anytime any user accesses a recipe, it will be the latest recipe available. And if they modify it and save it, it will instantly be available to al others who have authorization to access this data.

Do you have access to the nutrient data for upwards of 600,000 foods? If access to data and UPC bar codes is important to you, look for this feature in your software. Most software programs offer access to far fewer than 100,000 foods.

Can you monitor and manage your clients 24/7 as they enter food logs, exercise, and medications via their smartphones? This new way of managing clients will open up new opportunities in the field of nutrition healthcare. It will also enable dietitians to handle more clients than ever could in the past.

The Nutrient Database
The reliability of a software nutrition package cannot exceed the reliability of its data. Most modern nutrition software packages rely on the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Make sure you are using the very latest release of the USDA database. Other databases are also available - for example the Canadian Nutrient Files. Brand name and restaurant data are two other areas in which nutrition software packages can be compared. For the most part, software makers must compile and update brand name data on their own. Here are some questions you ought to get answers for:

Does the software feature a Research Quality Nutrient Database? Look for software that provides you with research quality data compiled from reputable sources. The USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference serves as the foundation for virtually all modern nutrition programs. The Canadian nutrient Files are also a reputable data source. Look for software that provides both of these databases.

How many nutrient factors does the software track? Some packages only track basic nutrient information. The high-end products track the basic nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acid profiles, and fatty acid profiles. Some track over 180 nutrient factors, including calculated values such as % Calories from Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates. Visit the company’s web site to see a listing of the nutrients that are tracked in their software so to make sure you get all the data you need.

How many food items are featured in the database? The more food items you can find in your nutrient database, the more likely you are to find what you or your clients really eat. Generally, the larger your database, the greater variety of food items you’ll find. Some software makers publish a listing of all the foods featured in their software product on their web site. See our Comparison Chart to see how many foods and nutrients the top programs provide you.

How many brand name foods are featured in the database? Unless your clients prepare everything "from scratch" - and some folks do - what they really eat is brand name foods. And once again, the more entries, the better.

How many restaurant menu items can you access? If your clients are typical, they eat out a few times a week. If they’re going to eat out, they might as well know what they’re eating. And of course, the more restaurant data you can access, the healthier restaurant choices you’ll be able to recommend to your clients.

How many unique brand name foods and restaurant names are tracked? The more unique brand names the software tracks, the wider the breadth of the information you'll be able to access. (The "Lean Cuisine" brand name should count as a single unique brand name, but there should be many food entries that bear that brand name.)

Do frequently used foods automatically go into an alphabetized, pop-up list for quick access? This is a real time-saver. This feature means you will never have to look up a food item in the database again - it is automatically listed for you to use again. Look for software that lets you organize these frequently eaten foods with ease.

Do you have the ability to add an unlimited number of new food items to the program? With a thousand new products hitting supermarket shelves every month, no one is going to have an absolutely current database. You should be able to add your own food items to the software by entering Nutrition Facts Label information yourself.

Can you enter a new food item or supplement by entering the Percent Daily Values (%DV)? The ability to enter actual values of % Daily Values saves you time when package labels include %DV’s but fail to include actual weight or potency values.

Does the software provide nutrient data for enteral and parenteral products? If it is important to you, you should find out which company’s products are covered and how many product entries the software provides. Information on the major products used in modern nutrition therapy can be very handy - especially if it’s organized for you by purpose (gastro-intestinal, hepatic, pulmonary, renal, etc.).

Does the software include commercial ingredients? Commercial ingredients are those used by food makers. They often have names like “Calcium Chloride” or “Disodium Phosphate, Anhydrous.” You’ll need these commercial ingredients if you work for commercial food makers.

Database Features and Capabilities
Today's software brings you the ability to search, sort, and manipulate your data like never before. If you want to view your nutrient data, sort it, pull out specific brand names or food names, compare food items, rank foods based on specific nutrients, and perform simple or complex queries on the nutrient data, "yes" answers to the following questions will give you these analytical abilities.

Does the software let you view the nutrient information for more than one food item at a time? This seems like such a simple question but consider: Looking at your nutrient data for one food item at a time is like looking at a huge nutrient database through a tiny pinhole. For instance, if you’re looking for frozen yogurt, you can see the values for any single frozen yogurt entry, but you can’t see and compare this nutrient data for say, 100 yogurt entries at once. A spreadsheet of nutrient data lets you peruse dozens or hundreds of yogurt entries at once so you can select the best-qualified food item for your client.

Does the software provide “header sort” capability? When you are viewing the nutrient data for hundreds or even thousands of food items in a spreadsheet format, it is very convenient to be able to click the column header for any nutrient, say, Calcium, and instantly rank all the foods in the list from high-to-low based on their values for that nutrient. Click the column header to reverse the sort. Click the column headers for other nutrients to rank based on other nutrients instantly. This is an amazing useful feature and it’s informative to use.

Can you easily view all the nutrients for any food item in a "single screen view" whenever you wish? Once you’ve singled out a food item for further study, a simple method (such as double clicking on the item or clicking a button while that food item is highlighted) should generate a single-screen summary for that food item. This type of view shows you all the nutrient data for the selected item in a single, scrolling screen. This lets you study all the data for a selected food item in a concise format.

Does the software let you select which nutrients it will display to the screen? Having over 180 columns of nutrient data displayed on your screen can get cumbersome if you’re only monitoring, say, three of those nutrients. If you could just select the three nutrients of interest and have the software display those columns of information to the screen, you would spend your time focusing on the nutrients you are evaluating. The software should, however, record all available nutrient data for you whenever you record the food item to a Food Log, Recipe, Meal, or Meal Plan.

Can you resequence and resize columns to place desired nutrient information next to each other? Suppose you wanted to position the Potassium and Sodium values next to each other. You should be able to, say, drag and drop the column header into place. Rearranging columns lets you view the data any way you want to view the data - instead of how the software happens to display the data. The ability to resize column widths lets you optimize the number of columns of nutrient data you can display per screen. (Dragging the right edge of the column header is an excellent way to do this.)

View, Rank, and Query Capabilities
Today, it’s possible for you to answer almost any question you can ask about the nutrient data. Today’s powerful database retrieval and display mechanisms makes using nutrient data far more useful by letting you isolate foods that are high in (or low in) any nutrient or nutrients of interest. You can isolate and view foods of a given brand name (or group of brand names). You can isolate a specified set of brand names and sort them high-to-low (or low-to-high) based on their values for any nutrient. You can specify criteria for every nutrient that the software tracks and have the database engine return all the food items that meet all your specified criteria. This is referred to as “data mining” and with modern nutrition software, you can do it now and without a supercomputer.

Can you display selected categories of foods (i.e., "cereals, ready-to-eat" or "diabetes/glucose intolerance") and view them and their associated nutrients alphabetically, by food names in a tabular, spreadsheet presentation? Suppose you need a suitable enteral product for a renal patient. It would be very useful if you could select a food a category called "Renal Support" (or something similar) and view an alphabetical listing of all the renal support products and their nutrient information.

Can you rank (sort) foods on its value for any nutrient? This capability lets you sort all foods from high-to-low or low-to-high based on their values for any nutrient you specify. This gives you the ability to locate the foods that are high in a nutrient you are looking for or low in a nutrient you are trying to avoid. As mentioned previously, clicking the column header for a nutrient is a convenient and intuitive way to sort foods based on their values for the nutrient of interest.

Does the software provide you the Nutrient Density View? The Nutrient Density View allows you to compare all foods in a list in a rational manner. The software asks you to select a calorie level or gram weight to serve as every food’s serving size. The software then normalizes all the nutrient values for that serving size and displays all the nutrient values for the list of foods based on the serving size you chose. This lets you compare the nutrition from, say, 100 calories of strawberries, watermelon, and blueberries rather than, say, a cup of strawberries, a nine pound watermelon, and fifteen large blueberries. If the software’s display also has “header sort” capabilities, you can click the column header for, say, Potassium to instantly rank all your foods from high-to-low based on their Potassium values. Click the column header again to reverse the sort.

Can you rank (sort) foods based on their values for % Calories from Protein, % Calories from Carbohydrates, or % Calories from Fat? Some programs don’t provide you these values so this ability wouldn’t apply. Ranking foods based on their % Calories from Fat, Carbohydrates, or Protein let’s you compare the food items in an "apples-to-apples" manner. For example, if you rank foods on their actual fat content, a large serving of one food may misleadingly come up ahead of a small portion of another food item that is high in fat (like a pat of butter).

Can you display all food items with a specific brand name (or set of brand names)? All nutrition programs let you search by food name. But not all let you search by brand names. There will be times when you may want to view all the foods from one brand, say, Lean Cuisine or a set of brand names, say Lean Cuisine, Weight Watchers, and Healthy Choice. The ability to display all the foods of a brand name (or group of names) lets you scrutinize their nutrient data in a convenient and useful presentation.

Can the software sort and display all foods above or below any value specified for any nutrient? This means you could, for instance, you could display all breakfast cereals that have at least 2.5 grams of Total Dietary Fiber, ranked from high-to-low. Or all hamburgers with less than 6 grams of Saturated Fat, ranked from low-to-high.

Can you perform a query on the nutrient data? A query is a Boolean AND search. It lets you display all the foods in a product category that meet all the criteria you wish to specify. For instance, you could locate all hamburgers and cheeseburgers from Wendy’s, Burger King, and another half dozen restaurants that contain, say, no more than 750 mg of Sodium, at least 10 grams of Protein, and then rank these items from low-to-high based on their % Calories from Fat. A sophisticated query function lets you answer virtually any question you can ask about the nutrient data. The most powerful query functions allow you to specify upper or lower limits for every nutrient in the database.

(Food Log) Management
An "intake" or “Food Log” is a listing of food items that a client eats during the course of some time period. Nutrition programs variously refer to nutrient intakes as “Food Logs,” "diets," or "foodlists." Nutrition software generally provides daily totals and average daily totals for client intakes. Some software packages let you analyze nutrient totals (and averages) for individual Meals and/or snacks. Some programs give you software to give to your clients so they can record their own Food Logs and then send that data on to you. Although all high-end nutrient analysis programs can analyze intakes, not all software programs are equally capable in this regard.

Can you subtract ingredients from a client’s intake log? For instance, if your client told you they ate a Whopper minus the pickles and mayonnaise, your software should be able to subtract the nutrients for the removed ingredients quickly and conveniently.

Will the software tell you the Next Best Food To Eat (NBFTE) based on what your client has eaten so far today? Normally, your client is eating with the goal of reaching 100% of each of her nutrient goals (most often based on her DRI). Look for a button to click that will display hundreds of foods this client could eat, arranged by the next best food to eat first, followed by the second next best food to eat, followed by the third next best food, etc. The next best food to eat is defined as the food that when eaten, will bring this client closer to 100% of her nutrient goals for the day by the widest margin of all available food choices.

Does the software forecast when a client will reach her weight or body fat goal based on her performance history? Look for a program that analyzes a client’s entire performance history and predicts the date on which she will reach her goal based on all previous progress. The software knows precisely what your client’s past performance has been based on the sum total of the entries you’ve logged in for her. This allows the software to extrapolate – with very high precision - when she will reach her goal. If her progress slows, the calculation takes this into account and forecasts a later date. If her progress accelerates, the opposite occurs. The forecast is updated daily and is self-correcting.

When you are recording a Food Log and adjusting a food item’s serving size, does the software let you assign it to a particular Meal or snack? It will save you time if you are able to specify the Meal a food belongs to as you record it. It lets you later view your client’s Food Log not only in terms of daily nutrient totals, but by individual Meals or snacks as well.

View analyses of an intake day’s individual Meals or snacks (both numerically and graphically) by simply selecting the Meal or snack of interest? This has been implemented in some applications with a “tabbed notebook” metaphor. Click on one tab to see the analysis for the entire day. Click another to view the nutrition for Breakfast. Another for Dinner. And so on.

Can you create a list of foods, beverages, and/or supplements that will be automatically recorded to a client’s Food Log each time you open a new day’s Food Log for that client? This auto-record feature makes it easier to record intakes for people who often eat the same things every day. This feature is also handy for recording vitamin and mineral supplements that are taken every day.

Does the software allow you to create a shopping list? Look for one that allows you to select and add food items from your Food Log, Recipe, or Meal Plan. Look for the ability to edit the list, organize it into logical groups, save in a word processor format, or print as desired. You’ll want to be able to pick the items you want to add to your shopping list - you may already have many of the food items on hand.

Can you create a serving size that matches your desired calorie level? Suppose you wanted to create pre-measured snacks (healthy cereals, nuts, etc.) at a particular calorie level - say, 200 calories per snack. You would tell the software you want a 200 calorie serving size and it will tell you how many grams your serving size is. This “make it and take it” option makes it easy to track your snacks throughout the day.

Will the software let you copy a day of a client’s Food Log (or selected Meals and/or snacks from that day’s intake) to another day (or days) of that same (or different) client’s Food Log? Versatility in copying work already recorded can save you a great deal of time, effort, and frustration. When using this capability, you’re normally copying information from a previous day to the present day. Or you may be working with a family or members of a group that eat together (like residents of a long term care facility). Since everyone is eating basically the same things, you’ll probably find it easier to copy the intake to the other clients, then editing the deviations.

When adjusting serving sizes, will the software let you select the units (cups, oz., grams, tbsp., etc) and the serving amount in decimal and/or fractional format? When you type in values like "1.67", 2 2/3," and "3-3/4," the software should automatically parse out the numbers and do the math for you. This way, you keep your focus on what you are doing rather than worrying about arithmetic.

Can you copy a day of a client’s intake into a day of a Meal Plan? A Meal Plan is a set of Recipes and food items assigned to a calendar. Dietitians often refer to Meal Plans as “Cycle Menus.” It can be assigned to any client you want to assign it to. Being able to copy a day of an already recorded Food Log into a Meal Plan saves you the time and effort of having to re-key a client’s "perfect day" into a Meal Plan.

Does the software show your client’s Food Log in terms of its "PCFA Ratio?" That is, does the software provide a running tally indicating not only the total absolute amounts of all the nutrients, but also the percentage of total calories from Protein, Carbohydrates, Fat and Alcohol? A pie chart works really well to display this kind of data because the sum of these values will always be 100%.

Are you able to display the client’s Food Log as a percentage of the client’s DRI (or any other customized set of goals)? You normally track nutrients with specific goals in mind… viewing a client’s Food Log nutrients as a percentages of her personal goals makes it easier to see how she is doing.

Recipe Management
Today’s high end software lets you cost your Recipes, scale them to feed any number of people, create U.S. and Canadian labels, include a photograph, and export them to share with other software users. Recipes are also referred to as "menus" or "foodlists," depending on the nutrition software you chose to use. Although "cookbook" software products are available for creating, organizing, and using Recipes, they just don’t compete well with today’s professional nutrition software packages when it comes to in-depth nutrient analysis of those Recipes, label creation, and the ability to format sophisticated reports for publication or for posting to your web site.

Can you easily save any Recipe as a custom web page with Nutrition Facts Label and a photograph of your Recipe? Set up a Recipe template and you will be able to produce comprehensive Recipe web pages with a single click. Save time and effort improve the quality of your web presence by using the work you’ve already done. Recipes tell others how to cook you Recipe - Recipes with photographs show them what the finished product should look like - invaluable for companies like national chain restaurants and cruise ships.

Can you cost your Recipes? You should be able to specify the cost of your ingredients and the software should tell you what a single serving of that Recipe costs you. The fastest way to accomplish this is for the software to present you a database - a listing of all ingredients and let you simply add costing information as needed. The software should also track historical costs for you so you can make more intelligent buying decisions today.

Can you subtract ingredients from a Recipe? You should be able to subtract, say, a tablespoon of mayonnaise from that Whopper sandwich if you wish. Then, you should be able to save that Recipe as "Whopper w/o Mayo" for use in subsequent Food Logs, Meals, and Meal Plans.

Can you record Recipes-within-Recipes? This lets you create, say, a soup stock or special sauce that you use as an ingredient in your other Recipes. With good software, you can embed Recipes within Recipes within Recipes within Recipes.

Does the software give you the ability to export the Recipe (or group of Recipes) to a compact compressed file that can be imported into any other version of the nutrition software package? This allows you to conveniently share Recipes with your colleagues via email, Internet download, a shared Sync Folder, or on a flash drive.

Can you stamp Recipes with a byline before distributing them? If you’re going to distribute your work, you might want to take credit for it. A byline can contain information regarding authorship, credentials, copyright, company, web address, phone, etc.

Can you view on-the-fly tallies for all nutrients as they are added to a Recipe? This feature lets you see how many Calories, Fat grams, Sodium, etc. you are recording or adding to a Recipe. As you adjust serving sizes, these numbers should instantly update themselves for you so you can see how your Recipe is doing in terms of the nutrients you are trying to control.

Does the software let you organize thousands of Recipes in a convenient manner? A tabbed notebook is a popular way to organize your Recipes. Automatic alphabetizing of the Recipes within tabs is very convenient. Sets of tabbed notebooks can be stored in “Folders.” For example a Recipe Folder called “Diabetic Recipes” could contain tabs like “Beverages,” “Salads,” “Entrees,” etc.

Can you drag-and-drop Recipes from tab to tab? This is the easiest way to organize your Recipes. And if they self-alphabetize within these tabs, then all the better.

Can you change the serving size of a Recipe? You should be able to define the serving size of any Recipe by the number of servings in your Recipe, the number of ounces per serving, or the gram weight of a serving. The software should report the nutrient analysis for a single serving. (The single serving values are always used when you create a Nutrition Facts Label.)

Can you scale your Recipes to feed any number of people? "Recipe scaling" is the ability to change the quantities of a Recipe to serve more or fewer people. If you create a Recipe that serves six, but need to scale it to serve 237 people, you should be able to tell the software to scale the Recipe to feed the number of people desired. The software will alter the amounts of each ingredient to make the required number of servings. This is very handy for chefs and other food service personnel.

Meal Planning
Meal Plans are collections of Meals and snacks organized on a day-by-day basis for some period of time (say, four weeks). Dietitians often create Meal Plans by first creating a set of Recipes tailored to meet the requirements of a special need (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) and then using these Recipes as building blocks to create new Meal Plans. Various nutrition products refer to Meal Plans as a "menu," a "menu plan," or a "cycle menu." Meal Plans are not specific to any particular client – they can be assigned to any client as needed.

Does the software provide collection of Meal Plans and Recipes to address a variety of special needs? It can take many hours to create a good Meal Plan from scratch. Having Meal Plans ready and waiting for special needs like weight loss, diabetes, hypertension, body building, vegan, vegetarian, and other needs is a big time saver.

Can you create Recipes at a variety of calorie levels and a variety of PCF (Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat) Ratios suitable for use as building blocks for full-fledged Meal Plans? Having a wide variety of pre-made Recipes for a specific purpose is useful - you can mix and match them to create a wide variety of Meal Plans that address a correspondingly wide variety of special needs. Look for software that allows you to organize all your Recipes of a specific type (i.e., renal, hypertension, etc.) into a list of its own (preferably, self alphabetized).

Can you create a Meal Plan report that shows what is to be eaten for three Meals and three snacks a day for a month (organized into Meals and snacks), with a sequential date attached to each day, in a "checklist format" for each food item so that your client can check the foods off as they eat them? These capabilities should be optional and selectable to make it convenient for you to make dietary recommendations that are clear, concise, and trackable.

Can you edit an existing Meal Plan to create a new Meal Plan? This capability makes it easier to create new Meal Plans based on the work you (or others) have done on other Meal Plans. For example, if you have an "1800-Calorie Vegetarian Meal Plan," you could edit it to produce a "Low-Sodium 1800-Calorie Vegetarian Meal Plan" without having to start from scratch.

Can you record any Meal Plan as any client’s intake? You should not have to re-keystroke weeks of intake information to record an intake for a client. If you’ve created a Meal Plan for a special need, you should simply select that Meal Plan, select a client, and then select the starting date. The software would do the rest for you. This capability makes Meal Plans worth the thought and effort you put into them.

Can you export custom Meal Plans into a compact (compressed) file that can be shared with other users via email, on a flash drive? This makes it very easy to share Meal Plans with your colleagues.

Client Management
Although a number of features fall under this category, the most basic client management capability is to create a client profile - that is, to record the personal information required for the software to make the calculations required to estimate daily calorie requirements, nutrient goals, and to make other nutrition and fitness-related recommendations.

Does the software provide you with Food Logging software for your clients? Your clients should be able to install this software on their computers and record their own Food Logs using the same nutrient database you use. They should be able to email their results to you with a mouse click. And when you receive their email, you should be able to double-click on the email attachment to have their Food Log automatically import into your copy of the software. At this point, it should be as if you had entered their Food Log for them… except that your client did all the work!

Will the software let you calculate client goals based on their body weight or based on their body fat content, as you prefer? Look for software that gives you both options. The former method is the most commonly used method, but the body fat method is often considered a more accurate method. As a professional, you should be able to choose how you want to work either way. If your software can track percent body fat goals, you will need some way to measure you client’s body fat.

Does the program help you set reasonable dietary and exercise goals for your clients? The program should ask enough questions to help you determine how many calories you or your clients need to achieve specific weight and nutrition goals, whether the goals are to gain, lose, or maintain body weight.

Does the program let you select and/or edit the formulas used to determine calorie needs? This lets you adjust the caloric determination based on your criteria rather than someone else’s. Look for software that also allows you to override the calculation if you wish. (If a client is under her physician’s order to maintain a 1200 calorie a day intake, you should be able to make it your client’s goal no matter what the software recommends.)

Does the software contain a contact manager to track client’s names, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, etc? This functionality makes it easier to generate mailing lists for periodic newsletters or for announcing your "monthly specials."

Does the software track client information (medical conditions, allergies, doctor, etc.), measurements (blood pressure, biceps, resting heart rate, etc.), body chemistry (cholesterol, triglycerides, uric acid, etc.), body weight and body fat content, and give you the ability to add virtually anything else you wish to track? A full-featured “Information Tracker” capability makes it easier to obtain and track important information about your clients and to provide reports for them as needed. If you want to track how many jelly beans your client eats and timestamp the entries, you should be able to do it.

Do you have the ability to track and graph your client’s body weight and/or body fat over time? A graphical indication of progress - or lack thereof - gives your client’s salient feedback. Not all nutrition software programs can set client goals based on body fat content goals.

How many clients can the software track? “Unlimited” is a good answer. And the ability to organize these clients into separate groups is very useful. Self alphabetized client lists within these groups are very handy as well.

Nutrient Analysis Capabilities
Software nutrition managers are often referred to as "nutrition analysis programs" - underlining the importance of analysis in nutrition software. Analysis capabilities vary from product to product. Some packages offer a number of fixed reports that you can simply click on to select and print. At the other end of the spectrum, you can select the ability to specify virtually any parameter that you may wish to include in your analysis. These highly customizable analyses require more direction from you, but they reward you with a far more customized output.

Can you perform nutrient analysis of a client’s intake by specifying all the parameters and having the software generate a custom report for you? Parameters would include specifying the days to analyze, selecting the Meals and/or snacks to analyze, specifying which factors to analyze (the client’s total daily intake, client’s average daily intake, etc.), specifying which Meals and/or snacks to analyze, selecting whether to analyze every food item individually, specifying which nutrients you want to include in the analysis, then specifying which sections of personal information to include in the report. This type of control over nutrient analysis puts the "high" into "high-end software."

Can you save the results of your analyses in spreadsheet format? The spreadsheet format makes it easier to share research data with colleagues around the world.

Does the software support group studies? The software should allow you to select a group of dozens or even hundreds of clients and analyze their intakes both as a group and as individuals, then save your results in a spreadsheet or database format. This capability helps facilitate scientific research, clinical trials/studies, and educational scenarios by tracking the nutrient intakes for large groups of clients. The spreadsheet format makes it easy to import into statistical applications and share the results with others.

Exercise Management
Just as high quality food is an important part of good nutrition, exercise is an important facet of good health. Some nutrition professionals refer to exercise as the "magic bullet" for weight control. Studies show that people who engage in regular exercise are more successful in controlling their body weight in the long term. No nutrition software can be considered “high-end” if it ignores or inadequately supports this critical area.

Does the software include an exercise management capability that will calculate burn rates for an unlimited number of exercises? “Burn rate” is number of calories burned by an exercise expressed in “calories per lb. of body weight per hour.” You should be able to add your own activities and exercises to the software’s database and the software should consider the client’s body weight when doing its calculations. Some packages don’t consider the client’s body weight - meaning, for example, that their calorie expenditure calculations for an 84 lb. girl performing low impact aerobics will be the same as for a 257 lb. man performing the same exercise.

Will the package print out a custom client-specific report that shows how many calories your client will expend in performing a wide variety of common activities and exercises for 30 minutes? If you tell your client you want her to burn 400 calories in exercise every day, Monday through Friday, she may be eager to get started. The next thing she’ll want to know is what her exercise options are. A client-specific exercise report will provide her many options. Such a report offers your client a wide range of activities to engage in to achieve your recommended daily exercise calorie expenditure goal.

Will the software track daily calorie expenditures from activities and exercises? You’ll want to be able to track the client’s exercise history to make sure your daily calorie allotments take the client’s activities into consideration.

Does the software calculate and support target heart rate training? Many clients today take their exercise routines seriously. Monitoring their training heart rates is probably the most practical scientific approach to fitness training and most heart rate monitors will measure "time in zone." Look for software that will estimate the target heart rate zone for clients, generate a training zone exercise prescription, and track the workouts over time.

The part of a nutrition package that the client sees is the report. Look for variety, flexibility, and customization capabilities. Since the report is what you hand to your client, make sure you include professionally prepared reports that reflect your good judgment and skills. This is not the place to save a few cents on paper – provide a sufficient number of reports that go into sufficient depth to justify your bill.

Are a wide variety of professional reports supported? The easier and faster it is to produce customized reports, the more value you can deliver to your client. After all, the report is often the only thing your client will ever see. It never hurts for your clients to see all your professionally prepared reports and handouts before they see your bill.

Can you automatically insert a text or graphical "header" into the top of your reports? This lets you create a page banner containing your logo, your name, company name, phone, email, address, etc., and place it at the top of every report you produce.

Can your software support under/over reporting for nutrients? This feature produces a list of comments – when the client is under her goal for a specific nutrient, the software inserts a comment indicating how much she is lacking and offers suggestions of the richest food sources for that nutrient. When she is over her nutrient goal for a nutrient, the software will insert a comment regarding safe intakes and upper tolerable limits. These comments should be able editable as desired. You should be able to add new comments for any nutrients that lack under/over comments. Under/over comments should already be present for all DRI nutrients.

Can you produce a customizable macro-driven assessment report for your clients? No other type of report makes you look so good with so little effort. You edit a "template file" that looks exactly like your final report except that you use placeholders ("macros") where your client’s actual data goes. For example a macro of ^firstname^ will be replaced with the currently selected client’s first name when you generate her report. Format the template file any way you like (align text, underline, italicize, or bold face text; insert tables, change font faces and point sizes, etc.). Macro-driven reports allow you to produce customized reports for every client. It looks like you gave up your evening to produce the report - but it actually only takes a couple of clicks.

Do the reports flag nutrient totals with missing values? This is important information. All nutrient databases contain "missing values." A missing value occurs when no value is given for a particular nutrient in a particular food item. When intakes, Recipes, and/or Meal Plans contain missing values, there is a risk of under-reporting these nutrients. (This is typically a better problem to have than over-reporting.) The software should offer to flag all occurrences of this for you.

Internet-Related Considerations
Thousands of dietitians, medical and health professionals, sports and fitness experts have already set-up shop on the Web. Even if you decide not to follow these pioneers, you can be assured that your clients and colleagues will. There’s no question that nutrition software is poised to provide more and more support for professionals doing business on the Internet.

Can you save your reports, analyses, and documents in Web Page format (HTML) or PDF? You should be able to save reports you produce in formats suitable for quick publication. PDF is handy because you can post it to your web site or email it to your client as an email attachment.

Can you drop a questionnaire on your Web Site and use it as a marketing tool that integrates with your software? The web-based questionnaire is a marketing tool. The idea is to get 100 hits a day, 700 hits a week, 35,000 hits a year. You gather personal information (like email address, age, gender, height, weight, desired weight, etc.). Import this data into your software. Offer a newsletter as an incentive for completing your brief questionnaire and providing you their personal information. Tailor your newsletter for the 500 lb. man, the elite runner, or the middle aged housewife. Market yourself by marketing your services.

Cloud-Based File Synchronization
The Internet brings us new and powerful capabilities. Some nutrition software ignores these new capabilities and some modern software capitalizes on them. Internet friendly software takes advantage of email, the PDF format, HTML (web page) format, questionnaires (forms), and other things that are available on the Web. More recent capabilities – like Cloud-based data synchronization, has also been put to use by today’s dietitians. And now, nutrition software can take advantage of this new technology too. There are many companies today that offer free Cloud-based synchronization folders for you to use in many ways to enhance your business and your life. A couple of companies that provide these services include Dropbox and SkyDrive.

Can you automatically synchronize your data across all of your computers no matter where on earth they are located? Look for a package that supports Cloud-based synchronization of your software data (Food Logs, Recipes, Meal Plans, client data, etc.) across all your computers no matter where your computers are located (as long as you have Internet access). If you install your nutrition software program onto your work computer, home computer, and your laptop, any work you do on any of these computers will immediately appear on all your computers. Sweet!

Are you able to collaborate with others around the world in a Workgroup? If you are one of several colleagues collaborating on a common project, you should be able to share the most up-to-date Recipes, Food Logs, etc. in almost real time. (Web-synchronized files “sync up” immediately after you click to save a file.) All members of the workgroup deal with the same, up-to-date data. This is an excellent way to increase productivity for larger projects or studies. Dietitians can share and update Recipes, Food Logs, Meal Plans, or newly added food items. Chefs can collaborate and share Recipes across oceans. National restaurants and cruise lines can all view the same information at any given moment.

Network Version Considerations
If you work in a small office, hospital, clinic, or educational facility and share the software with other users, a network version of the nutrition software is one way to use nutrition software. In addition to saving money, the networked version allows you to share client information, Recipes, and Meal Plans (only if you want to share them). Network versions can give you complete control over user access levels – for example, you may not want to give every user the ability to delete anyone else’s work. Network versions can also make sense in educational facilities where large numbers of students can access the software for assignments from any PC on campus.

Does the software provide password protected log-on for all users? This assures that only authorized users log on to the system and access your client information, Recipes, Meal Plans, etc. Also, by knowing who the user is, the software can make decisions regarding what information he or she is allowed to view, modify, and/or delete.

Can you allow full unrestricted access to all functions of the software to all users? This allows all users to share all resources. All users can see each other’s work. And they can also modify and/or delete each other’s work. (This works best in a small office situation where trust, harmony, and frequent backups abound.)

Will the software let you assign partially restricted access to all functions of the software to all users? This allows all users to see and use each other’s work, but they can only modify and/or delete their own work – they cannot delete anyone else’s work (Recipes, client information, Food Logs, etc.).

Can you assign fully restricted access to all functions of the software to all users? This allows all users to use the software. But they can only see, modify, and/or delete their own work. They cannot see, modify and/or delete anyone else’s work. This is a practical setting for educational facilities in which students are the primary users.

Miscellaneous Features
Often, the things that separate one software product from others is not how it handles the basic features, but what it does beyond the basics. These miscellaneous features may be major or minor, depending on the importance you place on them.

Can you track and graph diabetic factors to help your clients learn to control their blood glucose levels? By tracking the nutrient content of specific Meals and blood glucose levels over time, you can teach your clients which Recipes work best for them. If they use insulin, you can track dosages as well to determine which best food, medicine, and timing combinations work best for your them. Over time, your client can choose from a library of Recipe/medicine/time combinations that give them reliable control over this potentially devastating disease.

Does the software include the ability to create publication quality U.S. Nutrition Facts Labels? If so, make sure you find out if it is included as part of the initial cost or if there’s an extra cost for this capability. This capability is often a several hundred dollar option in some products – but is included with some nutrition software. Some companies charge thousands of dollars for this capability.

Can you create publication quality Canadian Nutrition Facts Labels? If so, make sure you find out if there’s an extra charge for this capability. Most - but not all - nutrition software charges several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars extra for this ability.

Is there support for Intermittent Fasting (IF) diets? IF Diets include normal eating days and fasting days. This means the software must be able to accommodate different calorie goals on different days. While this may seem like a simple thing, you will find that most nutrition software cannot do this.

Does the software provide you an integrated Recycle Bin so you can retrieve inadvertently deleted work? Woe unto you if you accidentally delete a four-week cycle menu - your labor of love - after the software asked you “Are you sure you want to delete this? This action is not reversible.” and you answered “Yes.” Undelete is a godsend for mere mortals like us. It has been known to cure of situational depression in the office after occurrences like this.

Is an integrated backup and restore feature with scheduling included? This feature protects you from data loss and makes it easy for you to move all your data to another computer. There’s no undertaking so miserable as redoing work that you put your heart and soul into the first time through, then lost every trace of due to a crash or an unexpected power outage. Consider software that will automatically back up your work on a schedule of your choosing.

Does the software provide you a comprehensive User’s Manual that shows you how to perform every function? Some software provides no user’s manual. Some software provides a short booklet that contains very little information and basically refers you to use the software’s help files. Some products provide comprehensive user’s manuals containing over 250 pages. Ask about support documents.

Can you set user-definable alarms for foods? User-defined alarms let you program client-specific alarms that trigger when you try to select any food item that exceeds the maximum set-point (that you had set) for any nutrient. (Fat, Saturated Fat, % Calories from Fat, Sodium and Cholesterol are popular alarm targets.)

Does the software provide a powerful graphing component? This would include 2-D and 3-D charts and graphs and support for area, bar, line, pie, point, scatter, and spline charts. Change colors. Rotate these objects in space, edit headings, titles, units, and values. Format headings, titles, and values. Control shading, coloring, scales, depth, etc.

Does the software provide you an expandable library of PDF articles that you can provide to your clients? The best implementations give you over a hundred nutrition, fitness, and health articles from highly reliable copyright-free sources and allow you to organize them into as many or as few categories as desired. Articles self-alphabetize themselves for quick access. You can add as many new articles as you create or compile from other sources. Print them out, email them, or post them to your web site. This is a nice time saver.

Pricing and Product Support
As in all areas, price and value are not always directly proportional. Product support, update, and upgrade policies vary widely. When evaluating a software package, it’s a good idea to call the company’s support line to see if they can answer a few of your technical questions… if they can’t help you with your general questions before you buy, they probably won’t be much help for your specific questions after the sale.

Can you install the software on multiple computers with a single end user’s license? The company’s End User’s License Agreement (EULA) governs the usage provisions of your software. Many companies of professional-level software require you to purchase a separate copy of the software or pay an additional fee for every computer to which you install their software. Read the software maker’s EULA before you buy. It’s a good practice to know what you're agreeing to before you agree to it. NutriBase permits installations on up to three computers for your own personal use.

Are there features of the software that are only available at extra charge? It could cost an additional $685 to $5,499 and more to support the creation of publication-quality Nutrition Facts labels. That’s not necessarily bad, but you should know about these costs prior to purchasing. Some packages - like NutriBase - include basic labeling capabilities in their product at no charge.

Does the software maker charge you a fee for product support? It could you cost you $75 per hour to purchase phone support for using the software from some professional nutrition software companies. NutriBase provides - and has always provided - free product support for life. Well-designed software doesn't require a lot of product support.

Does the company charge you an annual fee for using their software? Professional nutrition software companies frequently charge you $300 or more per year - in addition to your purchase price. NutriBase charges no annual fees.

Does the company offer you a fully functional evaluation copy? A good way to evaluate nutrition software is to download a fully functional evaluation copy and put it through its paces. Some evaluations are programmed presentations that walk you through the software - an idealized mini-tour. Working with fully functional software gives you a more honest feel for the software. If you can’t figure out how to do something, email or phone the company and ask them how to do it. See if you like the answers you get.

Will the company share their Update History with you? All companies track their software changes. Check the software maker's web site for their listing of all updates they've released for their software in, say, the past ten years or so. Their update history will itemize all the new features, enhancements, nutrient database updates, and bug fixes. Look for a record of continuous improvement. If a software maker has made significant progress, they're proud of it and they'll be happy to share that information with you. If not, they might not be willing to share that information with you.

Does the company offer free phone support? Look for a company that backs their software by providing you free phone support. Some companies give free support for a short time (i.e., 45 days), then require you to pay a subscription fee to continue receiving their “free support.” It’s a good idea to call a company before you buy. If they won’t talk to you before you give them your money, they might not talk to you after you do.

Does the company provide 24/7 email support? Email support can often be the best support you can get. Some companies provide email responses with annotated images to answer the most common questions. Good product support exists. Find it.

How much do software updates cost and are they downloadable 24/7? "Updates" are the interim releases that fix bugs and add enhancement or new features to the version you purchased. If they aren’t free, you need to find out what they will cost you. Some companies provide free updates for the version that you purchased. Some don’t.

Do you need to pay an annual subscription fee to stay updated? Some companies provide free updates for the version you purchase, then charge a discounted fee for major new releases (“upgrades”) which you may or may not purchase. Other companies operate on a subscription model and charge you an annual fee (typically around $300) for updates. Neither model is necessarily good or bad, but you should know what you’re getting into before you get into it.

Go for more capability that you think you need. Don't put yourself into the position of having to apologize for your software's shortcomings. Your clients won't see your software's inadequacies - they will only see your inadequacies. Make a list of "must have" features and make sure the software you purchase supports all of them. Make a checklist and compare products side-by-side and feature-by-feature. You can't always know all the features or reports you'll need ahead of time. Look for capabilities you haven’t considered... you'll never know when one of those features will win you a new client or make an old one happy. And happy clients will bring you new clients.

The Bottom line
Customers have many choices for their fitness, health, and nutrition advice. To win their business, you need to stand out. And to stand out, you must build a great reputation as a dietitian who is competent, professional, up-to-date on the technologies, and affordable. You must provide excellent reports, useful and pertinent handouts, and sensible easy-to-understand advice. You need to do this accurately, quickly, and at a price that's a very good bargain for your client. The right nutrition software may be the only economical way to do this. But before you hand over your money, do your homework. While the questions in this article are not exhaustive, they do shine a light on the types of features available in nutrition software today. After you’ve read these questions, you’ll be highly qualified to select the nutrition software that best suits your needs. So call a software company or two. Listen to their sales pitch. Hear them out. Then ask them a few questions!

Where to Find out More About Nutrition Software:

NutriBase Web Site 480-603-8359 - Information for the NutriBase Pro Edition nutrition software.

Esha Research Web Site 800-659-3742 - Information for the Food Processor nutrition software package and the Genesis R&D software programs. >Axxya Systems Web Site 800-633-3453 - This web site provides information about Nutritionist Pro software.

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