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Think keeping a food journal is a waste of time? You might want to think again. Study after study consistently tells us that self-monitoring—that is, keeping track of what you eat, how much exercise you get, and how much you weigh—is one of the key components to successful weight loss.
In a recent review of 22 studies1 on the subject, the authors concluded that, across the board, there was “a significant association between self-monitoring and weight loss.”
What the studies tell us is that when you’re accountable to someone—not just to yourself, but also to a healthcare provider, a life partner or a friend—you greatly improve your chances of losing weight and keeping it off. And the more often you keep track, the more successful you’re likely to be. In one study involving nearly 1700 people2, those who kept food journals six days a week lost double the weight of those who kept food diaries only once a week or less.
Why does this work? Because a food journal’s one of the best tools around for helping you to monitor and change your behavior. You can’t change your behavior until you analyze and acknowledge what you’re currently doing. Once you’ve got a clear picture of how much you’re eating and how much (or how little) you’re exercising, you’re in a much better position to figure out what you need to work on.
And there’s more to it than simply writing it down in your food journal. What’s even better is to record not only what and how much you’re eating, it’s also good to note why. Were you hungry? Or was your eating triggered by fatigue, boredom, anger or stress? This honest self-appraisal will help you see where you’re eating appropriately—and where a little behavior modification is called for.
There are all sorts of ways to keep track—anything from low tech paper diaries to high tech apps for your phone. But no matter how you keep tabs on yourself, there are a few things that will help ensure your success.
Just keeping track of your ‘good’ days isn’t going to help you. You need to come face-to-face with your behavior—the good, the bad and the ugly—before you can make positive changes. Write it all down, and give yourself a pat on the back when you’re good. But don’t beat yourself up when you’re not. Tomorrow is another day.
Some people like to write down what they plan to eat and how much exercise they plan to do each day, and use their food journal like a checklist. If you can’t do that, at least keep track as you go. For one thing, if you pull out your journal each time you eat or get the urge to eat, that little delay might make you think twice before you indulge. And if you wait until the end of the day, you’re unlikely to remember everything you ate—and by then it’s too late to change it.
Your food journal is a great tool, as long as the information you’re logging is accurate. So, practice, practice, practice! Weighing and measuring your foods at home will help you better estimate what you’re eating in restaurants, too.
The cream in your coffee, the butter on your toast, the dressing on your salad and the mayo on your sandwich—all those calories add up. Analyze your food carefully to make sure you don’t forget any of those ‘extras.’
1Burke etal. J Amer Dietetic Assn. 111:92, 2011.
2Hollis et al. Am J Prev Med. 35:118, 2008