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Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. Headshot

Food Diary: Why This Weight Loss Tactic Is So Effective

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I've seen it a million times. A client comes to me for the purposes of dietary counseling and he or she will tell me, "I hardly eat anything at all."

I ask all of my clients to complete a food diary for me and when I provide them the results, they're shocked at just how much they actually do eat.

Why would these individuals tell me they didn't really eat much at all? Were they trying to fool me?

The answer 95 percent of the time is no, they were actually fooling themselves. The problem is, as our busy lives go on, we tend to eat more than we think we do. We underestimate the exact amount of our daily intake because we fail to take into consideration portion size (usually much larger than what we think), grazing (such as taking a handful of jelly beans from a candy bowl) and fluid calories.

It's only when individuals are asked to write down everything they eat and drink that the true story is told. The importance of keeping a food diary goes way beyond just the food we eat. A recent study following 1,800 men and women over a six-month period showed that those who kept a food diary lost 50 percent more weight than those who did not.

So what's the secret?

Here are few perspectives on why food diaries are important:

  • Accountability: Writing everything down and seeing your daily intake increases your perception of how much you actually eat.
  • Makes you stop before you chomp: The extra helping of ranch dressing in your salad, the candy bar you picked up when you got gas for your car, even the second drink you had at dinner. They could all add up to another 150-650 extra calories throughout the day, yet we tend to forget about these little food extras and instead focus on our main meals. When it comes to food, even a little adds up.
  • Helps to truly portion out your foods: When individuals are asked to keep a food diary, they often must measure all their food for the most accurate assessment. I find that many people measure food based on the bowl or plate the food is eaten on. For example, someone may say they have a "medium bowl of cereal" in the morning when in fact, after measurement, it is determined they actually have a very large serving. Once individuals use more accurate methods of measurement, they have a better understanding of their overall portion distortion.
  • Ties in the connections to stress, emotion, timing and location: I often ask my clients to jot down not only their food choices and amounts but also the time of day, location and emotional level during their meal or snack. This can help people assess how stress may be controlling their food choices. For example, a client of mine realized that she consumed large amounts of chocolate and fried foods after interactions with one of her family members. The family member was clearly a trigger to unhealthy eating but only after seeing the connection on paper did my client realize this. Another client realized he was going six or seven hours in between meals and would gorge because he was so hungry. Many clients are shocked that during the entire day, not one meal was consumed at a table but rather on the couch in front of the TV or in the car. One of my clients realized after she completed her food diary that she ate all her meals standing up and because she was not focusing on her food but rather everything else around her, she ate much more than intended.

Food Logs 101:
You don't need a personal dietitian to start a food log, all you need is the time and commitment to track everything you put in your mouth. Studies show that tracking your food intake for a week or more yields the best results, but even recording your food for one day can make a difference. Be specific and track everything. I tell my clients to carry a pen and paper at all times to record consumption of food. Do not rely on memory because at the end of the day, chances are high that you'll forget something "minor." You'll forget about that sample at a grocery store or your conversation with your co-worker when you grabbed a handful of goodies from her desk -- those calories count.

Remember to accurately assess portion sizes. That means you'll have to measure out all your food choices at least for a few days. You may quickly realize that your portion sizes are much larger than you need and this may force you to assess your goals to consume only appropriate portions of food. For example, a serving of meat should be equivalent to a deck of cards, a bagel should be equivalent to a hockey puck and a serving of peanut butter should only be the size of a ping pong ball.

Make sure to record the time of day and emotions surrounding your food choices. This will help you better assess how far apart your snacks and meals are. The further out your meals are from one another, the greater the fluctuations in your blood sugar will be and the more likely you will overeat at your next meal. Aim for five smaller meals a day rather than the usual three squares. Second, assess any connection between your emotions and your food choices. Knowing your triggers will help you avoid the stress eating pitfalls.

Finally, record where you consumed food and assess how often you are eating in appropriate settings. Food should be consumed in an enjoyable environment free of distractions and disturbances. Several studies show that eating in front of the TV or in the car actually makes us eat much more.

Be Honest
I've seen people get so wrapped up in the food log that they actually start lying to themselves and under-report their food consumption. Remember that honesty is truly the best policy when you are doing a food diary simply for yourself or at the request of a health professional.

Keeping your records may mean further motivation to reach your goals. Keeping a food diary provides a historical perspective on all the amazing changes you've made throughout the weeks, months and years. It provides a tool that can be used to keep your motivation up to make further changes and may also increase your self-esteem as well! Getting back on track with healthy eating is difficult enough. Arming yourself with all the tools you'll need to get on track and stay on track is crucial. Keeping a food diary has been shown to have a dramatic effect on this!

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