Many people begin the new year with a resolve to improve their health. This improvement often starts with changing what they eat.
A food diary can be a useful tool in this process. It can help you understand your eating habits and patterns, and help you identify the foods — good and not-so-good — you eat on a regular basis. Research shows that for people interested in losing weight, keeping a journal can be a very effective tool to help change behavior. In one weight loss study of nearly 1,700 participants, those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.
What should you include in a food diary?
Most experts agree that the secret to successful food journaling is accuracy and consistency. So, what should you record? A basic food diary should include the following:
- What are you eating? Write down the specific food and beverage consumed and how it is prepared (baked, broiled, fried, etc.). Include any sauces, condiments, dressings, or toppings.
- How much are you eating? List the amount in household measures (cups, teaspoons, tablespoons) or in ounces. If possible, it is best to weigh and measure your food. If you are away from home, do your best to estimate the portion.
- When are you eating? Noting the time that you're eating can be very helpful in identifying potentially problematic times, such as late-night snacking.
Jotting down where you're eating, what else you're doing while you're eating, and how you're feeling while eating can help you understand some of your habits and offer additional insight.
- Where are you eating? Record the specific place you are consuming food, whether it's at the kitchen table, in your bedroom, in the car, walking down the street, at a restaurant, or at a friend's home.
- What else are you doing while eating? Are you on the computer, watching TV, or talking with a family member or a friend?
- Who are you eating with? Are you eating with your spouse, children, friend, or a colleague, or are you alone?
- How are you feeling as you're eating? Are you happy, sad, stressed, anxious, lonely, bored, tired?
Tips for successful food journaling
Here are more tips for keeping a successful food diary:
- Write down the food or beverage as soon as you consume it. Don't wait until the end of the day because your recollection is likely to be less accurate.
- Be as specific as you can with the food or beverage. For example, if you are drinking a latte, note the type and size.
- Be sure to include any alcoholic beverages you consume.
- A smartphone app like Lose It! or MyFitnessPal can support your efforts. These apps also offer information on calories and other nutrients.
You've kept a food diary. Now what?
After completing a week's worth of food journaling, step back and look at what you've recorded. Search for any trends, patterns, or habits. For example, you might consider:
- How healthy is my diet?
- Am I eating vegetables and fruit every day? If so, how many servings?
- Am I eating whole grains each day?
- Am I eating foods or beverages with added sugar? If so, how frequently?
- Do my moods affect my eating habits? Do I reach for unhealthy snacks when I'm tired or stressed?
- How often do I eat on the run?
Set SMART healthy eating goals
Once you've identified areas for improvement, set one or two healthy eating goals for yourself. In doing so, use the SMART goal format. That means your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. Here are a few examples of SMART goals.
Food diary observation: You average two servings of vegetables per day.
Goal: Eat more vegetables.
SMART goal: Eat three servings of vegetables per day.
Food diary observation: You order takeout three or four nights per week.
Goal: Cook more at home.
SMART goal: Order take out no more than one or two nights per week.
Food diary observation: You eat healthy meals and snacks until about 3 pm, when you hit the office vending machine.
Goal: Eat healthier snacks.
SMART goal: Bring a healthy snack (a piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts) to work every day.
Keeping a food journal can be very informative and move you toward improving your health. Using the data from your food diary to make SMART changes, and continuing to track your progress, is a great place to start your journey for a healthier 2019.