One day a week I work in a weight management clinic counseling individuals and teaching group classes. A sign we have posted in all the clinic rooms and the lobby states "We have found the secret to permanent weight loss." While there is no magic pill (even with the ones just approved by the FDA!), one strategy that has been proven to help with weight loss is keeping a food record or journal.
Just like with most things in life, we tend to overlook obvious things that can help improve our health and instead search for fancy, obscure, and sometimes expensive fixes -- handfuls of supplements instead of a healthy diet, expensive gym memberships (that goes unused) instead of simply lacing up our walking shoes and walking the dog. While clients are often somewhat disappointed when told that a food record is the secret to their weight loss, the truth is doing this one simple strategy is one of the most effective tools in healthy weight management.
Keeping a food record isn't fancy (and honestly isn't much fun!), however, it can be a powerful tool for those watching their weight as well as for those trying to keep their diabetes regulated or just to recognize and avoid eating when not really hungry.
I use this tool with cancer survivors working to improve the nutritional quality of their diet. After all, it is one thing to say you're incorporating more fruits and vegetables in your diet to try and decrease cancer risk, but keeping a food journal helps you see if you are actually doing it!
It's important to remember that obesity has been linked with cancers of the esophagus, colon, breast, and many others. Not only will a diet rich in fruits and vegetables offer many nutritional benefits such as antioxidants, but it may also help to keep weight under control, which may be a contributing factor to developing cancer.
Why it works
Keeping a food journal:
- Forces you to think about what you are eating. This process in and of itself can lead to better food choices.
- Helps identify problem areas. If every day at 3:00 p.m. I'm raiding the vending machine because I'm hungry I can see that I should bring a healthy snack to work.
- Helps you to plan ahead for a special event or eating out.
- Keeps you motivated to work toward your goals.
What's the proof?
A recent study of overweight, inactive, post-menopausal women who followed a calorie-restricted diet over the course of a year found that women who consistently filled out food journals lost about six pounds more than those who didn't. Even those who weren't quite as consistent with completing food records (<50 percent of the time) had improved weight outcomes compared to those who didn't complete them.
How to do it
- Write down everything. Not just the food but how it was prepared, any sauces, dressings, condiments, etc.
- Write it down right after eating. Don't try and rely on memory. Sometimes we have a very selective memory!
- Write down how much. Measure foods out if possible. A "bowl" of cereal can mean very different amounts depending on the person.
- Record exercise and other factors too. Time of day you ate, how you were feeling -- tired, bored, stressed. This is especially helpful to see if you are eating to deal with emotional issues.
- There's an app for that. Many people use online programs to track their intake. A benefit to these is that many will also calculate the calories from foods and even save foods you normally eat, making it easier next time you pick that item. LiveStrong.com's MyPlate is an easy-to-use online tracker.
- Share with a friend. Have a food journal buddy. A friend of mine was struggling with her weight so I had her email me her intake each day. She told me one day that she was so tempted to eat brownies that someone brought to work but didn't because she didn't want to record that and send it to me!
- Be honest. Think of it as a positive tool for helping make healthier choices, not punishment.
Has anyone tried keeping a food journal before? Do you have a favorite app that you use?