The Top 10 Whys and Hows of Keeping a Food Diary

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This is a guest blog post by Yoni Freedhoff, MD

Of all of the behaviors a person might adopt to help them with weight management, perhaps none is more powerful than keeping a food diary. Unfortunately, to date, food diaries have proven themselves to be both misunderstood and misused. Here then are the top 10 whys and hows of keeping one and staying sane.

1. Food diaries are about guidance, not judgment. A food diary isn’t meant to tell you if you’re been good or bad, what foods you’re allowed, or how much room is left for dinner. A food diary is there to help guide your next dietary decision, not to make it by providing you with the information you need to make your dietary decisions informed ones.

2. Food diaries offer protection against hidden calories. Calories aren’t intuitive. Meaning you can’t see them, smell them, or taste them. By tracking them you may discover that some meals or foods you love contain far more (and even sometimes less) calories than they’re worth which in turn might lead you to change their frequencies in your dietary rotation.

3. Food diaries burn more calories than exercise – sort of. It’s far easier to not eat calories than it is to burn them. Figure it takes most people nearly an hour of vigorous exercise to burn 500 calories. Those same folks can likely find, trim and remove 500 daily calories from their diets by keeping a food diary – an effort that will take 5 minutes at most.

4. Food diaries will double your weight loss. Or perhaps even triple it if you’re great at it. Studies on food diarizing demonstrate that those who keep them lose twice as much as those who don’t.  Of course those studies’ results lumped everyone together and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn those who kept the most complete and accurate food diaries lost even more comparative weight.

5. Food diaries must be complete to be useful, and the best way to ensure they are is to record your choices as you eat them. Studies on people trying to “recall” what they’ve had reveal that most of us forget – portions, choices or both – and yet none of us think we’ve forgotten anything (as that’s the very definition of forgetting). Given how easily the Fooducate app makes record keeping, there’s really no reason not to keep yours as you go.

6. Food diaries also must be accurate to be useful. The fact is, our eyes aren’t very good at weighing and measuring. Invest in some kitchen measures (spoons, cups, a digital scale) and use them, but remember that they’re there to tell you how much you decided to have, not how much you’re allowed – don’t let yourself get pushed around by a cup.

7. Food diaries are great tools for investigation. If you’re trying to determine whether or not you have specific food intolerances, or why some days you’re ravenous and others not, using the note section in your tracker can allow you to identify dietary patterns and choices that in turn matter to your health, well-being and dietary control.

8. Food diaries can replace your frustrating scale. The fact is, a scale is also a food diary – just a bad one, as it not only tracks calorie balance, but also measures constipation, clothing, and water retention. At the end of the day, if you keep a careful food diary, and your calories are where you think they should be, you won’t need a scale to know how you’re doing.

9. Food diaries serve as a shield against “Mindless Eating” –  the strange but true phenomenon that has been proven to lead people to put more food on larger plates, pour more cereal from bigger boxes, and eat more of a product with a healthy sounding claim or label. While a large plate or box might fool your eyes, they can’t fool your diary.

10.  Food diaries are what make habits form in that every single time you use your food diary you’ll be reminding yourself of all of those things you’re trying to change, and repeated conscious reminders are the building materials required for the formation of new habits.

Dr Yoni FreedhoffYoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he’s the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff’s latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, will be published in March 2014.

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  • Erika

    It just is too time consuming to keep track of all my food. It would be easy if you had an egg, an apple, a chicken breast & 3 pcs of broccoli all day. But what about when you’re putting together a salad that has 12 ingredients? Or a stir fry with 8 ingredients. Make a batch of muffins & have to enter 7 ingredients. I make a lot of home made food & it was just too time consuming to count calories. It would be easier if I was eating prepared food that lists calories etc. But I usually don’t. I found myelf eating the same thing over & over as I already had looked up the calories for it.

    Wish there was an easier way!

    • Jenny Cox

      Go to myfitnesspal.com.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      We’re working on it…

  • CeCe

    Absolutely BRILLIANT! I lost nearly 100 lbs and from the breakdown of this article, I can confidently attribute a lot of my success to keeping concise food diaries. Thank you, Dr. Freedhoff, for this eye-opening, witty and brilliant article! I look forward to reading more of your work. :-)

  • Jason Harrison

    Suggestion for food diary apps?

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      Use the Fooducate app! Free for iPhone and Android

  • Chloe

    Keeping a food diary fed my eating disorder. You have to be super careful when keeping it

    • Hawley

      The same thing happened to me. In my opinion food diaries, especially ones in which you count calories, prevent you from truly listening to your body and eating what it wants and needs.

  • Soccy

    I make most of my meals at home. Is there an easier way to track those kind of meals? Say for lentil soup, is have to add 7 ingredients to the diary. That’s a lot off work when you’re pressed for time caring for a large family.