If you’re trying to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle, you know quick fixes like fad diets and risky cleanses aren’t worth your time — but that doesn’t mean everything has to be such a long slog. Something that’s worth your time (and doesn’t take much time anyway): keeping a food journal. New research published in the journal Obesity found the tried-and-true practice of logging what you eat is key to losing weight. In the study, people who recorded calories, fat and portion sizes were more apt to be successful in their weight-loss goals than those who didn’t maintain diet diaries. The biggest finding: The effort took less than 15 minutes per day.
Here, expert dietitians explain why food journals work so well and how you can get the most out of using one.
WHAT MAKES FOOD LOGGING SO EFFECTIVE
It can be easy to mindlessly eat and drink while driving to work, juggling errands and vegging out at the end of a long day. But “diet diaries require that you pay attention to your food choices every time you eat,” explains Julie Cunningham, RD. Even if you choose something that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into your eating plan (like a frosted doughnut at an office party), you’re reminded of the large portion and extra calories when writing it down — and thus more aware of your intake, she says. Maybe you tweak what you have for lunch or dinner, or you simply get a picture of how to fit a splurge into your plan. Over time, you’ll begin to connect foods with calorie and macro levels and, ideally, make healthier choices.
HOW TO MAXIMIZE THE BENEFITS OF A FOOD JOURNAL
1. CHOOSE A METHOD THAT WORKS FOR YOU.
Ultimately, the best diet diary is one you can stick to, so choose something that suits your routine and lifestyle. It could be a traditional paper journal, an app like MyFitnessPal or a combination of both, says Mindy Haar, PhD, RD, assistant dean of undergraduate affairs at New York Institute of Technology School of Health Professions.
2. LOG WHAT YOU EAT ASAP.
Log your intake as you go, or better yet, before you chow down. Write down the meals (and drinks) you plan to have ahead of time, then use your food journal as a checklist to motivate yourself, says Susan Bowerman, RD, director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition, a nutrition and weight-management company based in Los Angeles. While waiting until the end of the day to log your meals all at once can be tempting, your memory’s likely to fail you, says Cunningham. What’s more, if you’re about to stress eat, pulling up your app can give you the mini-delay you need to think twice before giving into cravings, adds Bowerman. To keep yourself accountable, set a reminder to log at your usual meal times or take a quick pic of your plate if you can’t log it right away.
3. BE HONEST.
You can’t just log the good days or forget to add that extra slice of pizza you had on Friday night. The goal of your food log is to get an overall picture of your eating habits, not to pretend you’re perfect, says Cunningham. “Most everyone eats a mixture of nutritious foods and ‘pleasure’ foods, and that’s perfectly normal,” she says. To improve, you’ve got to come face-to-face with your eating behaviors, adds Bowerman, so don’t beat yourself up when you run off-track — it takes time to create healthy habits.
4. MEASURE THE EXTRAS.
The cream in your coffee, the butter on your toast, the dressing on your salad and the mayo on your sandwich — all those calories add up, so make sure you don’t forget any add-ons, says Bowerman. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to measure everything for a while, until you’re good at making estimations.” Use measuring cups, spoons and kitchen scales to reveal the reality of portion sizes.
5. TRACK YOUR MOOD.
“One of the most important things that comes out of a diet diary for many of my patients is how their emotional state impacts their food choices,” says Cunningham. In addition to what you eat, consider recording with whom, the location, your hunger level before and after (1 being ‘super hungry’ and 5 being ‘stuffed’) and how you feel (happy, sad, tired, stressed or bored). You might notice a big work meeting stresses you out and you end up overeating, or a Netflix binge when you’re bored and tired brings on lots of salty snacks — even though you aren’t actually hungry.
Armed with this information, you can combat emotional eating by working on mindfulness techniques or beat boredom eating by adopting new hobbies like walking or reading, says Cunningham.