When it comes to healthy eating for a fit and active lifestyle, certain facts are undeniable: Water is crucial, you can eat as many veggies as you want, and weight loss/maintenance is more a result of diet than exercise. Having said that, I recommend my clients log their food, especially when they are not seeing the results they are training for.
Does keeping a food journal help you lose weight?
Yes. Tracking what you eat at each meal or snack can help you improve your health and lose weight for two major reasons.
First, you’re accountable to an observant yet nonjudgmental party (the trusty food log). Consistently logging your food helps you consider why and when you’re eating and how hungry or satisfied you feel. This record-keeping can help you have a more positive relationship with food in general. It draws your attention to food-related pitfalls that may have previously thrown you off-track and gives you the information you need to move forward from a place of honesty.
The second reason why it works is that it provides you with a wealth of information. You’ll learn more about both the foods you enjoy and the places and situations that you find yourself eating. It can help you notice any negative feelings related to food and identify why you might be eating for reasons that have nothing to do with how hungry you actually felt. Part of being specific is being emotional. You don’t want to simply write about what you ate, you want to write about how it made you feel.
The power of the food journal is that it keeps you accountable and makes you more aware. You are less likely to grab that piece of chocolate cake if you know you have to write down later and face the ultimate critic (AKA you). Plus, you become more aware of the emotions tied to your food or the habits you’ve fallen into. Perhaps you find that you crave fatty snacks around 4 p.m. When you sit down and ask yourself the simple question “why” in your journal, you realize that 4 p.m. is peak stress time at work. The following day, you come prepared with a healthy snack to munch on at 4 p.m.; maybe you even excercise before work to prevent your stress.
How do you write a food journal?
Try to stay as consistent as possible and be patient with yourself while you adjust. If you miss a day, don’t sweat it. Just pick it back up the next. And keep in mind that it’s not forever. Food logs can tell you a lot whether you do it for a week or a month.
Pen and paper are a tried and trusty way to do it, but it may not be realistic for you. Try writing in a note on your phone, taking pictures, or using an app. MyFitnessPal and LoseIt — both free — are two of the most popular ones. Fitbit also has a food tracker built into its app.
You should include several pieces of information in your daily food diary. These are:
- How much: List the amount of the food/drink item. This might be measured in volume (1/2 cup), weight (2 ounces), or the number of items (12 chips).
- What kind: Write down the type of food/drink. Be as specific as you can. Don’t forget to write down extras, such as toppings, sauces, or condiments. For example, butter, ketchup, or sugar.
- When: Keep track of the time of day you eat.
- Where: Make note of where you eat. Keeping a physical or electronic record of where you eat will help you become aware of your current habits and the scenarios that impact them. If you are at home, write down the room. If you are out, write down the name of the restaurant or if you are in the car.
- Who with: If you eat by yourself, write “alone.” If you are with friends or family members, list them.
- Activity: List any activities you do while eating, such as working, watching TV, or playing a game.
- Mood: You also should include how you feel when you eat. Are you happy, sad, or bored? Your mood can relate to your eating habits and help you change them.
Log foods as soon as you can. The key to nailing the whole food journaling thing is to actually record what you’re having at the exact moment you’re having it. But since that’s not always realistic, don’t fret. You can take a quick pic of your meal before you eat it and fill in the details after-the-fact, that’s okay too.
Note what you may have “missed” at any meal. Did you order a bunless burger at lunch today and ultimately down the contents of a cereal box while watching TV after dinner? Could you try adding extra protein to your lunch and see how you feel tomorrow? If you skip meals or skip satisfying components at a meal, you’re likely to overeat later on.
Use your food log as a library. It’s a go-to list of your favorite items to order, the restaurants where you picked salad when what you really wanted was a pizza, great recipes you enjoyed, and which options or modifications left you feeling satisfied, not deprived.
Be honest. If you’re using a food log but not being totally truthful in your entries, then it’s no longer working as a tool for you. The only person who has to see it is you. Start from a realistic place and make gradual changes. Habits are a result of the choices you make consistently.
You’ve kept a food diary. Now what?
After completing a week’s worth of food journaling, step back and look at what you’ve recorded. Search for any trends, patterns, or habits. For example, you might consider:
- How healthy is my diet?
- Am I eating vegetables and fruit every day? If so, how many servings?
- Am I eating enough protein each day?
- Am I eating foods or beverages with added sugar? If so, how frequently?
- Do my moods affect my eating habits? Do I reach for unhealthy snacks when I’m tired or stressed?
- How often do I eat on the run?
Are food diaries effective?
A food journal holds you accountable and creates a personal reference guide that can inform your future choices and, ultimately, your habits. However, it’s not for everyone. Keeping track of what you eat is supposed to help you stay mindful and accountable — not bad about yourself.
If a food log helps you make positive lifestyle changes, then that’s 15 minutes of your day well-spent!