The weight loss industry is huge (no pun intended). Each year, people all over the country spend $20 billion on books, products, drugs, and surgeries to help them battle the bulge.
If you’re trying to lose weight, there’s a surprisingly simple, free, and proven way to do it that doesn’t involve drugs or surgeries—and no, it’s not a scam.
It’s a food journal.
The Link Between Food Journals and Weight Loss
Food journals have proven to be a pretty powerful weight loss tool. One study of 1,685 overweight or obese adults found that those who kept a daily food journal lost twice as much weight (an average of 13 pounds) as those who didn’t jot down their food.
Another study found that women who kept a food journal for a year lost an average of 19 pounds. What’s more, they skipped fewer meals and ate out less than those who didn’t keep a diary.
What is it about keeping a food journal that helps people lose weight?
Why Food Journals Work
Most researchers agree that food journals are effective because they increase awareness. If you’ve ever hit a weight loss plateau and thought, “How can I not be losing weight?! I barely eat anything!” you may be thinking you’re eating less than you really are. When you accurately record what you’re eating, it can help you see if you’re consuming more calories than you realize.
When I first began my own weight loss journey, I started a food diary. At the end of the first few days, I was shocked at the amount of junk food I was eating daily. It was easy to see why I was overweight when my mid-day snacks were frozen burritos, dinner was pizza or fast food, and huge bowls of ice cream for dessert were commonplace. It was the wake-up call I needed to overhaul my diet. Thanks to my food journal, I lost over 50 pounds in a year, and have kept every ounce off.
Food journals can also help you recognize eating habits and areas you can improve. For example, your food journal may reveal that you eat over 1,000 calories after work every day, but very little during the day. That information could help you adjust your eating schedule so you’re eating every few hours instead of bingeing at night.
Keeping a Food Journal
Are you convinced you need to keep a food journal? Great! Getting started is easy.
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide how you’ll be recording your food. This can be as simple as a small notebook you can toss in your purse or slip in your pocket.
You can also download an app. There are hundreds of different apps that can help you track your food. Some of the most popular and highest-rated free apps include:
- My Fitness Pal. This app has a database of over two million foods. It also lets you input your current weight and goals.
- Lose It. Track your food by inputting it yourself or scanning barcodes. You can also set challenges with other users.
- A popular app for businesspeople, you can also use Evernote to enter your meals each day.
- MyPlate by Livestrong. Track your food, calories, and goals with this app.
If your smartphone has a Notes feature, you can also write your food down there.
So what do you write? At minimum, each entry should include the food you ate and the amount. You can also include calories.
But food diaries can be more than just what you ate. Writing down how you feel when you ate, whether or not you were hungry, and the time of day can provide even greater insight into your eating habits. For example, if your food journal shows that you ate three Snickers bars during a Netflix marathon, you may be a mindless snacker. Or, if you notice you ate more than usual after a stressful day at work, you could be a stress eater. Your food journal can highlight these issues and help you find more constructive ways to deal with stress.
Diary Dos and Don’ts
A food diary itself won’t magically make your weight disappear; it’s what you do with the info you write down that’s important.
These do’s and don’ts will help you get the most out of your food diary:
DO take it everywhere.
It’s easy to forget to record your food, especially if you’re not in the habit. Take your food diary everywhere you go and record what you eat right when you eat it. This is where apps come in handy. If you’re like most of us, you have your smartphone with you all the time, so it’s easy to record your food immediately.
DO include everything.
That spoonful of peanut butter you ate while making your kids’ lunches. The handful of candy you grabbed from the candy jar at work. If it went in your mouth, write it down! This is one of the most important aspects of food journaling, especially if you’re in the habit of snacking mindlessly.
DO be honest.
If you ate that entire bag of chips or that third donut, write it down. Food journals are all about discovering the habits that keep you from your weight loss goals. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself for them to work. And remember, no one has to see your food diary but you.
DO be consistent.
A food journal shouldn’t be something you fill about on occasion. One food journal study found that those who kept a food journal six days a week lost twice as much weight as the group that only recorded their food once a week.
DON’T leave out the details.
Was your chicken fried or grilled? Did you have a large latte or a small? They may seem like little details, but they make a big difference. Make sure you include portion sizes, the way it was prepared, or any toppings.
DON’T forget to record.
Sometimes, it’s not always practical to whip out a notebook or your phone and write down what you’re eating. When that’s the case, make a mental note of what you ate, and write it down as soon as possible.
DON’T beat yourself up.
A food journal can be an eye-opening experience, especially in the beginning. If your journal entries show some poor eating choices and habits, use it as motivation instead of getting down on yourself.
DON’T stop when you’ve reached your goal.
A food journal doesn’t just help you lose weight, but it helps you maintain your weight loss as well. In fact, half of all participants in the Weight Control Registry (an organization that monitors long-term weight loss) continue to keep a food journal. By continuing to track your food, you can stay accountable and identify any habits that can lead to weight gain.
If you think diaries are just for tweens, think again. A food journal is a powerful and easy way to help you lose weight and be more aware of what you eat.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian