Harriet was one of my first patients. She kept a food diary diligently yet she hardly shed a pound. After several weeks, I suspected that she wasn't accounting for the foods she "tasted" while cooking and entertaining. As an experiment, I suggested that she put tape on her lips while she prepared meals. Sure enough, to her surprise, she banged into her lips more often than she ever expected. Only then did Harriet realize that total honesty was missing from her daily journal. She went on to change her faulty habit—and lost quite a bit of weight.
If there's one instrument that effectively promotes weight loss, it's the food diary. But if it's not taken seriously, then, like anything else, its value will be limited. Seeing what you eat in black and white will help you define portions and help you become more aware of everything that crosses your lips.
The value of food diaries was explored in a recent study of 123 overweight or obese post-menopausal women who followed a weight-loss program for a year. Participants were advised to jot down everything they ate, and most adhered to about 1,200 to 2,000 calories a day. Results showed that participants who consistently kept a food diary lost about 6 pounds more than those who didn't. Dieters who skipped meals or dined out more often lost less. Those who ate lunch out once a week or more lost about 5 pounds less than those who ate out less frequently. Results were similar for eating dinner out.
This doesn't mean that you should stop going to lunch with your friends, but it may illustrate that it's time to stop skipping meals and start picking up a pad and pen along with your knife and fork. Writing down what you eat will shine a light on the quantity and quality of what you actually consume.
So why not create a food diary of your own? Here are some tips to help you get started:
• Be honest. Don't say that you had a bite of cheesecake if you had a slice. The only one who'll wear that cake is you.
• Be specific. Instead of writing "pretzels," write "24 pretzels." Size does matter.
• Be accurate. If you're adept at estimating, then cite portion sizes, like "3 ounces of meat." If your steak is the size of your plate, perhaps it might be a good idea to purchase an inexpensive food scale.
• Be complete. Include details about how the food was prepared and how it was served, including condiments and toppings. Chicken that is fried and topped with butter sauce and onion rings should not be recorded as "chicken."
• Be consistent. Fully fill out your diary so that you include whole days. Try not to record today's breakfast, tomorrow's lunch, and the next day's dinner. A whole day will tell the whole picture and help you discover which meals or snacks need attention.
• Be confident. Don't write, "today was a disaster," without mentioning specific foods. If you decided to eat it—you should be able to write about it.
• Be sure to choose a tool you'll really use. It doesn't matter where you write it: a computer, a smartphone, a note pad, paper towels, or toilet paper; as long as you write down—and evaluate—what you eat, you will eat differently.
Depending on how detailed you want to get, you may want to make note of the date, time of day, type of food, and amount of food you're eating. It may also be helpful to note where you ate the food and your mood while eating. There are many factors that come into play when it comes to why we eat they way we do and why we eat the amounts we do.
You also don't have to reinvent the wheel—many online resources such as fitday.com and sparkpeople.com provide food diaries that allow you to chart and analyze your intake of calories and specific nutrients.
And by the way, the study mentioned above also showed there was no difference in the weight loss among those who weighed themselves daily or once a week. How do you feel about your relationship with the bathroom scale? Does it help or hurt you to weigh yourself daily? Stay tuned for a future story about the pros and cons of making friends with the scale. Please weigh in on this issue.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.