What if I told you there was a simple task that you could do several times a week that would make a huge difference in helping you lose weight?

Or keep that weight off, once you reach your goal?

In fact, it’s a task that study after study – dating back to at least the 1970s – has validated. But at the same time, it’s something that almost every course I’ve taken over the years says you likely WILL NOT do.

This tool is absolutely FREE, but the fact people don’t/won’t use it has spawned an entire industry that makes billions of dollars a year. 

You’ve seen the title of this post, so you already know what it is.

It’s keeping a food journal.

But wait! Before you click off, here’s something to know:

If you can just keep a food journal SOME of the time – it doesn’t have to be ALL of the time – it can make a real difference.

See what I did there? Like, kind of beg you NOT to shrug this off?

As a trainer and fitness coach, this is part of my job. I’ve spent years soothing people about this topic. I’ve been apologetic. I’ve clicked my tongue, telling them I know how hard it is, oh and how I wish it wasn’t so. I’ve held their hands and searched desperately to find a spoonful of magic to help this medicine go down.

Some bullet points why food journals kick butt: 

  • You can eat a flexible diet (still enjoy your favorites) while achieving your physique goals.
  • Nothing is banned from your diet.
  • They give you data – you can see little ways to tweak your program to attain maximum results.
  • AND … they help you follow my training/nutrition maxim: How to do the least to get the most.

See why I’m feeling a little tired of soft-selling food journaling?

“But it’s so hard, Wendy. I don’t have time. I’ve tried but I just can’t stick with it.”

Grown-Up Wisdom From My Father

I know it can be challenging, but most worthwhile things are.

Did you ever see the TV show That 70s Show?  Red, the dad in the show, was a lot like my father.

I hated going to school. Like: HATED. And some days he didn’t love his job so much and would have preferred to stay in his garage, tinkering.

And yet every morning he would drive me to school, listening to me complain/whine/beg not to go. And there he’d be, on his way to a job he didn’t always love, listening to me.

He would tell me: “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.”

And it’s true. The way I look at it is this:

  • If you want clean clothes, you have to wash them when they get dirty, even if you’d rather be doing something else.
  • If you want to save up for vacation, you have to cut back on spending elsewhere so you can sock money away.
  • And if you want to earn some money, you have to go to work.

The only guaranteed way to get the results you want is to take the tested-by-time approach.

Like keeping a food journal, yes?

Oh and one more thing before I get into the nut of this: I have to keep a food journal, too. And guess what? I don’t always (ever) feel like it. But when I don’t keep one, my weight starts to creep up.

So I’m not asking you to do anything I don’t do myself. I have to follow the rules, too. 

Science-Backed Proof that Food Journals Work

As science has established, to lose weight you have to create a calorie deficit. That means, basically, burning more calories than you take in. Even if those calories are gluten-, sugar-, dairy-, and even carb-free.

Question: How do you know if you’re eating less than you are burning, unless you keep some kind of record?

Let me ask you another question (or three). Have you ever stood on the scale after “dieting” for a week, praying to see the scale go down?

And then it didn’t?

It’s a total bummer, right? Especially if you’re not sure what went wrong.

This is where a food journal comes in. If you write down everything you eat, then you have a pretty good idea if you’re eating at a calorie deficit.

It only makes sense, because you have actual DATA to work with.

Here’s another thing: it doesn’t matter how fancy your food journal is. You can keep a paper record, although studies show it can be time-consuming and cumbersome. Or you can use an app or website to record your food intake.

You don’t even have to keep a meticulous record every day of the week. Studies show that keeping a record 75 percent of the time seems to be the sweet spot (see study below).

I’m gonna get into the particulars of how to keep a food journal below, but I wanted to share with you some real science. If you don’t want to read it, just scroll on past it. 🙂 

6 Actual Quotes from Actual Scientific Studies/Reviews

There are dozens and dozens of studies showing the efficacy of food journaling. In fact, it was challenging to choose just a few to include here, so I picked 6 at random to show you.

Like, seriously, in less than 10 minutes on a Sunday morning, I came up with these.

If you want to find more of your own, here are some search terms to google: “self-monitoring weight loss nih ncbi,” and “food journal weight loss nih ncbi.” NIH = National Institutes of Health, NCBI = National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The language used by researchers is a little dense, so I’ve included only tidbits, but you can click the links for more.

1. Dietary Self-Monitoring and Long-Term Success with Weight Management

This study looked at weight maintenance AFTER weight loss.

“Higher total frequency of (dietary) self-monitoring was significantly associated with lower percent weight change within individuals who self-monitored consistently, but had little impact on weight change for those who did not self-monitor consistently (1).”

So, those who logged their food gained back less of the weight.

Also in this study, it was noted:

2. The Role of Self-Monitoring in the Maintenance of Weight Loss Success

“… Self-monitoring can play a key role in successful long-term weight management. These initial results support previous research demonstrating self-monitoring as an effective tool to promote weight loss (citing the study above). However, it extends beyond prior studies in illustrating the beneficial impact of self-monitoring on long-term weight loss (2).”

Basically, study participants who self-monitored their food intake for longer periods of time got better results.

3. Comparison of techniques for self-monitoring eating and exercise behaviors on weight loss in a correspondence-based intervention

“Findings suggest the self-monitoring process, rather than the detail of self-monitoring, is important for facilitating weight loss and change in eating and physical activity behaviors …. A reasonable target for consistency for self-monitoring within the context of a professional cognitive-behavioral treatment program may be self-monitoring all foods eaten on at least 75% of the days (3).”

4. The Effect of Electronic Self-Monitoring on Weight Loss and Dietary Intake: A Randomized Behavioral Weight Loss Trial

“In summary, in our study that used 3 different approaches to self-monitoring diet and exercise, each group achieved a significant weight loss … These findings suggest that use of an electronic diary facilitates improved self-monitoring however, the use of an electronic diary plus a daily feedback message that was tailored to what had been entered in the diary was related to the best weight loss (4).”

People in this study who received immediate feedback after they completed a food diary did the best. Some online apps offer this feedback for free, or as part of their premium services (like MyFitnessPal, Fitbit, or more).

5. Can following the caloric restriction recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans help individuals lose weight?

“Individuals who averaged an energy deficit in excess of 500 kcal per day lost nearly four times the weight as individuals whose average energy deficit was below 500 kcal per day. Individuals who lost 5% of their body weight during the intervention self-monitored more than twice as many days than individuals who failed to lose 5% of their body weight.

Individuals interested in losing weight should continue to be advised to regularly self-monitor energy intake and expenditure as well as to create a consistent daily energy deficit (5).”

6. Self-Monitoring and Eating-Related Behaviors Associated with 12-Month Weight Loss in Postmenopausal Overweight-to-Obese Women

“Greater food journal use predicted better weight loss outcomes while skipping meals and eating out more frequently were associated with less weight loss. This study identified specific behaviors linked to weight outcomes that can inform the development of practical, evidence-based weight loss recommendations for overweight/obese postmenopausal women. From a clinical point of view, these findings are promising and suggest fundamentals such as eating out less, eating at regular intervals, and use of food journals are weight loss strategies that may be effective for postmenopausal women (6).”

How To Keep a Food Journal

Pretty convincing stuff, huh?

It’s so convincing that I actually feel guilty about trying to find workarounds my clients will use. I almost feel like I’m selling them short.

Why? Workarounds take longer. They are less precise, so when the weight doesn’t come off, it’s hard to know exactly why.

And it’s super hard to stay motivated when you’re not getting any results.

But before I get into all THAT, here are things to keep in mind when it comes to keeping a food journal.

Rule One: Don’t Judge Yourself

Yes, keeping a food journal does require that you ‘fess up to every bite you eat.

But it doesn’t mean you’re “bad” or “good” or that any kinds of foods are inherently “bad” or “good.” There really are no BAD foods (well, k, maybe trans fats …), but there are foods with better or worse nutritional and health benefits.

At least to start with, you’re just entering data when you’re keeping a food journal.

Think of it as an educational process.

Every time I revisit my food journal, I’m surprised at how I’ve let my portion sizes creep up, inadvertently taking in more than I thought.

Using a food journal can help you stick with a program because it doesn’t ban specific foods. You don’t have to deprive yourself of your favorites.

If you really want to eat a slice of pizza, you will have to deal with the fact it contains a certain number of calories, and trade them off somewhere else.

But you still get to eat your pizza. It’s a matter of choice.

Rule Two: It’s Not About Perfection

This ties into the rule above.

We’re all human. We have complicated relationships with food.

Contrary to what anyone says, food is not just fuel. We celebrate with it, we enjoy it, we have memories and happy (or not-so-happy) associations with it.

The minute you start trying to be perfect or follow stringent rules is the minute you derail yourself. That’s because your mind starts thinking you’re either “on” a plan or “off” a plan. And when we go “off” a plan, it often means we’ve strapped on the ol’ feedbag.

Food journaling allows you to create a lifestyle that supports your weight goals, where you don’t have to be “on” or “off.”

Rule Three: Foods Are Not Just Calories

It’s very easy to start reducing food to the number of calories it contains. You can start to think that eating a cookie is the equivalent of spending 45 minutes on level 5 of the elliptical.

As I mentioned above, food is more complicated than that.

What you eat forms the building blocks of your body. The kind of food you eats affects how full you feel after you eat it, your mood, and, most importantly, your health.

Certain foods (like sugary and processed foods) can even make you gain weight in your belly. And other foods (like proteins) can help you maintain muscle while you lose weight. Some foods can keep your digestive system happy, others are good for your brain health, and yet others will make your skin glow with health.

So while it might be tempting to start seeing “calorie equivalents” on everything you eat, keep in mind that 150 calories worth of banana is much different to your body than 150 calories worth of chocolate chip cookie.

Simple Steps to Make Food Journaling Work

I highly recommend experimenting till you find a method that works for YOU.

Personally, I like to use the food journals offered by Fitbit or MyFitnessPal. I also happen to prefer the computer version vs. the phone app, because at least in their current forms they break down the info better. But there are dozens of free options available.

I prefer online/app journals because they’re portable and they do a lot of math for you. Plus, once you use them for a couple days, they store the foods you regularly eat, so it becomes increasingly easier/faster to log your foods.

Now, here’s something important to be aware of: most of these sites will try to have you set a daily calorie goal immediately.

I recommend holding off on that for a bit. Sometimes the goals the sites set up for you can be pretty aggressive, setting you up for failure right out of the gate.

My suggestion: for 3 days, record everything you eat. Don’t try to be “good” unless you can’t help yourself. 

Chances are you’ll be a little shocked to see how many calories some of your go-to foods contain.

The next step, if you want to lose weight or change your body composition, is to start to refine your food intake. I’ve created a calculator for women you can find here to help you do this (I am working on one for guys).

But my recommendation with THAT is not to get too spun out about your macronutrient breakdown, especially at first.

Keep It Simple for a Happy Life

If you want to lose weight, experts recommend a 300- to 500-calorie deficit a day, which works out to about 1 pound a week. If you fall into the obese category, you can create a slightly larger deficit.

So, you would try to find ways to cut that number of calories from your average daily food intake, as recorded on your 3 first days. Do that for a few days and see how you feel.

Then, experiment.

You might notice that some breakfasts keep you feeling fuller longer.

Or you might discover if you don’t eat enough during the day, you’re super hungry at night.

You might notice that if you don’t drink enough water during the day, you crave carbs.

When you start paying attention to these things, you’ll start noticing real results.

And THEN, once you master the process, you can start to put together an eating program that works for you and your everyday life.

Flexible Food Journaling Is The Key

This is about creating a healthy lifestyle that supports your weight/body goals, not about depriving yourself.

Why? The more rigid your eating plan is, the harder it is with stick to long-term. And when you go “off” your plan you’re more apt to regain any weight you’ve lost.

Instead, try using your food journal as a way to let YOU run your food intake, and not let your food intake run you.

Have you had success using a food journal? I’d love to hear about it!

Stop Dieting. Start Enjoying.

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