Writing down everything that goes into your mouth may sound like a drag, but it’s exactly what many dietitians recommend for their clients, especially before launching into a weight-loss journey.
If you’re looking to lose weight, “it’s good to track what you’re eating and drinking because it helps you get a better understanding of what you’re actually eating and drinking every day,” says Veronica Niedzinski, a registered dietitian with National Jewish Health in Denver. “I think a lot of us don’t actually realize what all we put into our bodies.” But if you take the time to actually write it all down and look back, “I think a lot of us would be surprised to see how much we eat and in what amounts.”
[READ:Try Weight Watchers]
The Benefits of Food Journaling
Ariella Davis Sameah, a dietitian at Sheba Medical Center in Israel, says food journals work by forcing you to think before you eat. “If before the person ate without a second thought, they now are forced to be more conscious and aware of what they’re eating by having to record it.”
It can also be a useful tool for a dietitian. “It gives us a better picture of what our patients are eating,” Davis Sameah says. “Based on the data from our patients’ food diaries, we can adjust our nutritional recommendations to help them on their dietary journey.”
Stephanie Taylor, clinical nutrition manager of food and nutrition services with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, adds that while lifestyle change can be difficult, “a food diary or journal can be used to guide people in their decision making. Additionally, many studies have shown that individuals who maintain some form of a food diary or journal while trying to lose weight are more likely to be successful with both short- and long-term weight loss.”
She points to a 2019 study in the journal Obesity, which found that “it only takes an average of 15 minutes per day to complete a food journal. And those with greater than 5% or 10% weight-loss success were shown to have documented more consistently throughout each day.” By those measures, she says, “the 15-minute trade-off for a sustainable weight loss seems well worth it. After all, a successful weight loss could result in decreased medical cost and risk for medical conditions in the future.”
Emily Rice, a staff dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that taking your food log to a registered dietitian can help you “create a nutritious and well-rounded plan to achieve your weight-loss goals. As dietitians, we’re able to calculate how many calories someone needs per day to maintain, gain or lose weight based on height, current weight, age and activity level.”
How to Track Your Food
Niedzinski recommends choosing “whatever method is most comfortable” for you. If that’s the newest app on your phone, or good, old-fashioned pencil and paper, “whatever you think you can be adherent to is probably the best option.”
Taylor notes that “technology has provided an overwhelming number of options for us to use,” but if you like to take some quiet time to reflect, pen and paper is a good option. “This approach creates opportunity to focus on self-care and reflection.” If you’re crunched for time, many apps, “even some free ones, provide ease with documenting in a few quick clicks.”
Some of these apps can provide a wealth of information, says Natasha Vani, vice president of program development and operations for Newtopia, a tech-enabled habit change provider headquartered in Toronto, Canada. However, some of them can actually “make entering information tedious by requiring specific quantities, and finding the exact type of food you’ve had on an app is often surprisingly difficult.”
Instead, she says writing it down on paper gives you more flexibility to include those extra notes that can be so helpful for adding the insight you need to make lasting habit changes.
Parker also recommends a “notebook and pen, as it keeps you accountable and allows you to list everything that you’ve eaten.”
What to Track
Starting with breakfast and up through that bedtime snack, everything you consume should be noted. You may also want to keep track of nutritional measures such as calories, grams of fat, carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist with Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida, says that you should be specific with your log. “I would start by writing everything you eat and drink.” In other words, if you ate a sandwich, write it as “two pieces of bread with 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise and 2 slices of ham and a handful of leafy greens with one slice of tomato.”
When it comes to keeping track of nutritional measures such as calories, knowing exactly how much you’re taking in may not always be the easiest thing. “If you’re eating prepackaged foods, the label will list the amount of calories and other nutrient facts on them,” Niedzinski says. But if you’re working with whole foods or making your own recipes at home, “it might be a little bit harder to do that.”
Certain apps such as Lose It! and MyFitnessPal can help you estimate how much you’re consuming. Many recipes you’ll come across online also list this information so you can easily calculate a pretty close estimate to how much you’re eating.
In addition to tracking how much and what you’re eating, Niedzinski says it’s also a good idea to note when you’re eating and what else is occurring. “Note what mood you’re in, and whether you’re out with friends or sitting on the couch watching TV.”
Taylor says that making note of feelings, emotions and how full you feel after eating can help “identify triggers related to eating behaviors and patterns. This process can help to identify the root cause of often bigger issues that need to be focused on for long-term success.”
Vani agrees that this sort of insight is important. “There’s a lot of mindless eating that happens in front of our smartphones or Netflix, but bad eating habits are also driven by boredom, stress, loneliness or even positive emotions like excitement during fun social events.” All of this can influence how much you’re consuming. But simply tracking it can help you get a handle on what’s really going on. “I’ve seen food journals really help people to stay accountable and serve as an empowering measure of progress and success.”
How Often to Track
How long to stick with it largely depends on the person, Niedzinski says. She often advises patients to track for a few weeks “just to get an idea of what your habits are like and whether there’s any trends over that time period.”
And you don’t have to do it every day either, Vani says. “I usually suggest three to four days a week; at least two days during the week and one day on the weekend since our eating patterns are almost always different when we’re not working.” She says doing this for a minimum of a month can help you see the patterns that will help guide you toward your goals.
What to Watch Out For
While tracking your intake is important, Vani says, “it’s important to not get compulsive about calorie counting or weighing foods. Use simple methods to keep track of quantity like plate size. Descriptions like ‘one potato’ or ‘one piece of chicken breast’ are enough to be effective. You could also use the hand method by counting out palm-sized portions of the food you are eating.”
Taylor also warns against overthinking it. “The key here is not to create a process that is overwhelming and undesirable. Rather, you should identify a method that is realistic to utilize consistently.”
That said, don’t forget to track what you’re drinking — both drinks that contain calories and those that don’t. While water contains no calories, sugar or the other things you’re limiting if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s still a good idea to track your intake so you can determine whether you’re drinking enough, Davis Sameah says.
This is even more important for drinks that contain calories and sugar. Some people “believe juice is healthy, so they won’t include that in their journal,” Vani says. Similarly, “they may leave out the two tablespoons of sugar that they added to their coffee. Or they may not be completely honest with themselves about how much alcohol they’re having. I always tell people that this is for you to get better, so do your best to be honest with yourself and include everything.”
Honesty is the key component, Niedzinski says. “At the end of the day, the more honest you are with what you’re putting in your body, that can give you a lot more insight. And if you’re truly trying to make changes that’s the best way to really identify the areas that need improvement.”
Still, “tracking is not for everyone and there are other tools that can aid weight loss,” Rice notes. The bottom line is that food journaling “should help create awareness of dietary patterns and behaviors as opposed to causing distress.” She also recommends talking with a dietitian before beginning your weight-loss journey “to find the method or methods that fit your needs best.”
More from U.S. News
Update 03/10/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.