Why You Should Keep a Food Journal

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Looking for a way to lose weight without radically changing what you eat? One way to do it is to create a food journal.

Food logging (as opposed to food blogging) is simply keeping track of what you eat on any given day. You can do it with a notepad and a pencil; you can go online to one of many websites (including the USDA's MyPlate); or you can download an app (such as MyFitnessPal or Lose It!).

Using a food journal to write down what you eat every day helps you manage your weight in several ways. “Even if you aren’t ‘dieting,’ putting your food choices down on paper can help you lose weight,” says Belinda Zeidler, a professor of nutrition at Portland State University. Why? “Because sometimes knowing that you’re going to be writing it down makes you think twice about eating that second piece of chocolate cake or supersizing your french fry order.”

That might be because food logging adds accountability to your weight management efforts. Having a way to track what you eat, even if you’re the only person looking at what you write down, helps keep you on the straight and narrow. Subconsciously (or even consciously), you imagine that someone is checking up on you, and it helps you make better choices.

Keeping track of your food also promotes more mindful eating. How many times have you wandered into the kitchen to get a glass of water or charge your phone and ended up grabbing a handful of chips from the snack drawer? You might have eaten half a bag before you even noticed what you were doing. That is the very definition of mindless eating. But getting in the habit of writing your food down helps you be aware of what you’re eating. Awareness is the first step toward more mindful eating, which is the habit of slowing down when you’re eating, reducing distractions (put down that smartphone), and really experiencing the textures, aromas, and flavors in your food.

A Nutrition Education
Maybe the best thing that comes out of food journaling is what you learn—about food, about nutrition, and about yourself. Professor Zeidler has her students complete a diet analysis using MyPlate every quarter. “It’s amazing how many of them come up to me afterward and say things like, ‘I had no idea how much of my diet was made up of junk food,’ ” she says.

Writing down what you eat helps you search for patterns. Are you eating more calories after 10 p.m. than you do at breakfast? (See “The Midnight Diet” for tips on how to ward off late-night snacking.) Are you blowing your diet every Thursday morning when coworkers bring donuts into the staff meeting? Fruit would be a better choice. (Read “Smart Snacking at Work” for ideas on healthy alternatives.) Seeing patterns can help you back away from bad habits and get on the right course. For even more information about patterns in your diet, use your food log to record your daily weight as well. Some apps (and certainly a handwritten food log) allow you to associate your foods with an emotion. So if you see a lot of “potato chips” next to the word “bored,” or “½ bag of chocolate chips” adjacent to the word “sad,” you can investigate how to break the connection between emotions and eating.

Apps and websites that associate calories and nutrients with the food can further your education. Foods that seem quite benign may have many more calories or grams of sugar than you expect. You can also use these apps to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of nutrients like protein or consuming too much sodium or saturated fat.

Are you getting your recommended daily allowance of fruit? The FruitGuys can help with that!

Be Consistent and Honest
There are three keys to success in food journaling. The first is to be committed. The benefits of food journaling come with consistency over time. Getting into the right mind-set helps you achieve this.

The second key is to be honest with yourself. The Weight Watchers saying “If you bite it, write it,” nicely sums up the necessities in food journaling. If you “forget” to add the little extras in your day into your food journal, it’s not going to get you where you want to go.

Accuracy is the third pillar of successful food journaling. Using measuring cups and spoons will help you in this task. You could even invest in a food scale for your kitchen. In the U.S., our portion sizes are out of sync with our nutritional needs. Measuring your food can help you dial back the size of your portions to help you lose or maintain your weight.

Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.

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