Food Journaling 101

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Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about food journaling, and I’ve even written a few blog posts about web and smart phone applications that support this habit.  But I never gave it much thought beyond that it’s a helpful weight loss tool, so I wanted to dig a little deeper into the supporting research and rationale.Food_Journal

What is food journaling?  While it sounds pretty straightforward, there are any number of combinations of details you can record in a food journal.  The general idea is to write down everything you eat and drink at meals and in between on a daily basis.  Details to include might be portion size as well as calorie and other nutritional content.  You can also record when, where, and how you were feeling at the time of eating.  Some food journals include space for noting how much physical activity you get each day, too.

Increasing numbers of studies are focusing in on the value of keeping a food journal in conjunction with losing weight.  In a 2012 Northwestern study, which we’ve mentioned on the blog before, people who used a mobile food and activity tracking app alongside of another weight loss program lost an average of 15 pounds (and kept the weight off for a year).  Another 2012 study, associated with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, found that women who kept food records lost six more pounds on average than women who did not.  This study also found that food journaling helped people take weight off more quickly initially and maintain this weight loss for a longer period of time.  In a 2008 study, participants who kept a food journal for at least 6 days a week lost twice as much weight as those who did not.

The main rationales behind food journaling are awareness and accountability.  Knowledge about your habits is the first step in helping you decide what changes you may need to strive for.  You can use food journals to see the nutritional breakdown of your diet… are you getting enough protein?  Fruits and vegetables?  Too much salt?   You can look for patterns… do you get most of your daily calories at a certain meal?  Do you go for something sweet at the same time every day?  Do certain emotions trigger your appetite?  Then, once you set a goal for yourself, you can use the journal to help you stay within these bounds.  Showing your record to someone else, whether it’s a friend, family member, or counselor, only increases the level of accountability the journal provides.

FoodViewThere are many styles of food journals to pick from.  Some people prefer to use pen and paper, while others like to use a web or mobile phone application.  However, studies show that modern technology, which is available to you anytime and anywhere, can contribute to greater adherence and accuracy than paper journals.  Paper templates for food journals can be found through Real Simple, NIH, WebMD, and American Heart Association.  Web and mobile phone apps include: SparkPeople; Lose It!; MyFitness Pal; MyNetDiary; My Plate Calorie Tracker from LiveStrong.

Some final tips for food journaling:

  • Write down your food and beverage intake as you go rather than waiting until the end of the day.
  • Be honest; don’t skip a day or meal that was particularly indulgent.
  • Pick a style of journal (paper vs. digital) that will work for you.
  • Start with fewer details and only be as detailed as will allow you to continue the practice.

With some dedication and consistency, keeping a food journal is one of the most effective ways to make changes in your diet, and it’s certainly one of the cheapest!

–Katie Huffman

(Image by Kirstin Carey of Nourish 123 blog, courtesy of Creative Commons)

Sources: WebMD- Keeping Food Diary; WebMD- Food Journal; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Proceedings of UCLA Healthcare, Volume 15 (2011) Clinical Vignette; American Heart Association- How to Keep Track of What You Eat; Real Simple- How to Keep a Food Journal; NIH’s Weight Control Information Center; Humana                         Hollis, et al.  Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance TrialAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine 2008; 35(2):118–126.
Kong, et al.  Self-Monitoring and Eating-Related Behaviors Are Associated with 12-Month Weight Loss in Postmenopausal Overweight-to-Obese WomenJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012; 112(9): 1428-1435.

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