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Anyone who has ever been on a weight-loss quest knows what it’s like to get wrapped up in the latest diet trends or to be dropping tons of money on the newest health gadgets. Forget all those fads—there’s one super-simple and effective weight-loss tool that’s been around for decades, and it’s stood the test of time for good reason: It works.
A new study shows that using a food diary is the tried-and-true weight-loss hack that still continues to work. (Related: 10 Women Share Their Best Weight-Loss Tips)
Why Food Journals for Weight Loss Work
I’ve been using a form of food journaling in my practice for years because I see the results.
It can be a powerful way to build an awareness of habits and noting progress over time. One of the first things I ask a new client is how they feel about tracking their intake. While many are on board, it’s not unusual for someone to say, “I tried it, but it took too long.”
New research shows food journaling doesn’t have to take an eternity to be effective, though. The study published in the journal Obesity explored how 142 subjects enrolled in an online behavioral weight control program self-monitored their diet. Throughout the 24 weeks of the program, participants engaged in an online group session led by a dietitian. They also tracked their food intake. All participants were given a goal for calorie intake and percentage of fat from calories (less than or equal to 25 percent of their total calories). The amount of time they spent logging (or food journaling) was tracked electronically.
Turns out, the most “successful” participants—those who lost 10 percent of their body weight—spent an average of 14.6 minutes on self-monitoring by the end of the experiment. That’s less than 15 minutes per day! You’re probably spending five times as long mindlessly scrolling through your social media feeds or swiping left or right on a dating app.
What’s meaningful to me about this research is that the authors used both an educational component and a self-monitoring tool to help people develop an awareness of their habits, and then use what they learned to create behavior changes. This can help build resilience and confidence over time, which can help someone stay on track for the long term.
Tracking your mood and how it relates to what you’re eating can also be illuminating. Jotting down how you were feeling before and after eating or adding details about your eating environment or your dining company can also show how other things impact your choices.
So, Should You Keep a Food Journal?
While a food journal is an old-fashioned concept, there are many ways to apply it to a modern-day on-the-go lifestyle. For someone who is working toward a weight-loss goal or who wants to stay on track with making lifestyle changes, a food journal can be a very mindful, tangible tool. Yes, it can highlight areas where you’re struggling (those office doughnuts, perhaps?), but it can also show you what’s working (you packed healthy meal-prep lunches every day).
One big barrier that keeps people from trying food journals is the fear of judgment. Many people don’t want to log a food or meal they don’t feel “proud of,” whether they’re sharing it with anyone else or not. But I’d encourage anyone to stop looking at foods as good or bad, and rather, use food logs as merely data that can be used to inform your decisions.
For example, rather than saying, “I ate a doughnut for breakfast—WTF is wrong with me?” you can say, “Okay, so I ate a doughnut, which is mostly empty calories from sugar, but I can balance that out by making sure my lunch has plenty of veggies and protein so my blood sugar can be more stable and I don’t get hangry.”
While there are clearly many weight-loss and health benefits to using a food journal, there are some people who I wouldn’t recommend this tool to. There are people who find that tracking what they eat can trigger an obsessive mindset or kick up dust related to a past eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. (See: Why I’m Deleting My Calorie-Counting App for Good)
Work with a dietitian to find identify another strategy that will still help you stay on track with your goals, but won’t set you off.
How to Use a Food Journal
The most important thing you need to do if you want to be successful at keeping a food diary? Make it a part of your everyday routine—that means making it convenient!
If carrying around a notebook and pen sounds like too much, you can use your phone. I’m a big fan of tracking apps where you can log food and activity, and I actually use an app with all my clients for their journaling as well as messaging and video sessions. Even the Notes section or a Google doc can work well. (You can also consider downloading one of these free weight-loss apps.)
The study participants were encouraged to track throughout the day (aka “write when you bite”) and to glance at their calorie balance for the day as a way to help them plan ahead and avoid accidentally going overboard.
However, if you find it works better for you to log everything at the end of the day, as long as you can remain consistent, go for it. Try setting an alert on your phones as a reminder to track.
Whatever your weight-loss tracking method of choice, just make sure it’s realistic, healthy, and works for, not against your lifestyle.