Why can keeping a food journal help with weight loss?

Diana Meeks
Diana Meeks on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Family Practitioner

A food diary can help you stay on track. Keeping a food diary will let you know exactly where you stand nutritionally. You may think you are eating a healthful diet, watching your portions, then after calculating your calories at the end of the day, you find that you have eating twice as many as you thought.

Interestingly, some studies have shown that when obese people who say they maintain a low fat, low calorie diet are asked to record their daily food intake, the results are surprising. The same people who said they ate no more than 1100 calories per day, topped off at an average of over 2,000 calories per day. This made a tremendous difference that resulted in weight gain instead of loss!

Until you get in the weight loss habit, keeping a food diary will help keep you organized and honest. Use it like you would a check book, writing down what you eat each day, the portion size, and calorie and fat counts. As you go through the day, calculate the calories in your diet. If you are over the suggested limits for weight loss, make adjustments the next day. The diary is a good indicator of what you really eat.

Ruth Frechman
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Keeping a food journal is a very effective tool for losing weight. Seeing what you eat in print may be eye-opening. All of those bites all day long can add up. A food journal also keeps you accountable. People like to start a diet in the morning. By lunch they forget. Writing down your meals will serve as a reminder to keep going. Be true to yourself. If you eat a whole bag of candy, forgive and move on. Start over the next day. 

Ms. Ashley Koff, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

In my private practice, I continue to see the benefits (long term) of journaling. First, it holds you accountable—and it also reminds you not to judge yourself or your eating on just one day. Second, it helps a professional help you. When my patients say "I don't know why I am not losing" we look at the food journal and say, maybe this isn't working or we need to adjust here etc. And third, it teaches us to add variety—if I am bored reading your food journal, chances are you are bored eating it!

Jim White
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Keeping a food journal will help you keep track of the foods that you are putting into your body throughout the day. A food journal gives you the opportunity to plan out your healthy meals and have a direct reference to the calories you are consuming. With a food journal you will have physical accountability which gives you a chance to recognize the aspects of your diet that need to be altered. 

Ms. Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

A good food journal will include not only what you eat, but also other factors such as how much, where, why, hunger level, mood, stress, physical activity, etc.  This will provide an in-depth picture to your eating habits.  You will become more aware and start recognizing patterns that are positive to help you lose weight.  Research has also found that people who maintain food journals are more successful at losing weight and keeping it off.  There are many different "apps" available for smartphones as well as free online food journaling sites to help you with this process.  A food journal is also a valuable discussion tool for your healthcare team and you.

Sharon Richter, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist
Keeping a food journal can certainly help with weight loss, since it's a record of exactly what you are consuming and when. In this video, registered dietician Sharon Richter, RD, explains how keeping a food journal can benefit your diet efforts.

Research has shown that people who keep a food journal, and monitor their daily caloric intake, are more successful when it comes to weight loss than those who do not. Keeping a daily food journal enables you to become aware of how much food you really consume on a daily basis, and can help identify any problematic or destructive food patterns that may be present. A food journal will also help keep you accountable to any weight loss and/or healthy eating goals you have set yourself.

Below are some tips for how I recommend my clients keep a food journal:

  • Write down everything you eat and drink and at what time of the day.
  • Write down the precise amount of all food and beverages consumed (do not forget to include salad dressings, and other condiments we generally add to foods).
  • Also make a note of how you were feeling before and after you ate. (These feeling can refer to emotions as well as hunger level).
  • Record any physical activity, including duration and intensity of the exercise.

Keeping a food journal helps you become more aware of how you really eat. Making a note of your feelings can also help you understand why you eat. For a food journal to really work, you must be brutally honest with yourself regarding what you eat on a daily basis. Many of us underestimate how much we eat on any given day, and many of us don't want to show our trainers a food journal full of poor eating choices. Some of us "accidentally forget" to log certain poor choices when we know someone will be looking over our journals. But, it's important to be honest. Making mistakes is how we learn, and we are all human, none of us are perfect all the time. However, keeping a regular and truthful food journal can be a huge eye opener, and a great tool to help you monitor and adhere to your weight loss plan.

When you're not paying attention, you tend to let all the little BLTs -- bites, licks, and tastes -- slide by. Things that don't exactly fit into your plans don't register because they seem too small to make a difference. But little bits add up.

When you pay attention to the way you eat, it's easier to notice when you're overdoing it and to rein yourself in when things are going off track.

Here are some other ways that keeping a food journal may help you lose weight:

  • It increases your awareness of what you eat and when you eat, and the way you feel when you're eating.
  • It allows you to plan ahead for special splurges or potentially tough obstacles.
  • It gives you the information you need to focus on behaviors that are making it more difficult for you to succeed. 
  • You can see how you're doing, make changes as needed, and celebrate your successes.

Weight Watchers can help you lose weight and keep it off.

Weight Watchers offers a comprehensive approach to weight loss that can help you reach your goals.

Bet you never knew that a pen could be your best weight loss tool. In one of the largest and longest weight loss maintenance trials ever conducted, the more food records that dieters kept, the more weight they lost.

Simply jotting down what you eat seems like an easy price to pay for fewer pounds. The people in the study also followed a diet, attended weekly group sessions, and exercised for at least 30 minutes a day. After six months, the people who had also kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who did not keep track -- probably because the food journals encouraged people to reflect on what -- and how much -- they'd eaten.

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Marisa Moore
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

A food journal makes you accountable to yourself. When you keep a food journal, you're forced to think twice about what you eat. If you opt to eat a sleeve of crackers versus just five you have to write that down. And for many this is a major eye opener! 

In fact, keeping a food journal has been shown to as much as double weight loss when compared to those who don't keep a journal. You find out so much about yourself and can develop healthier eating habits as a result.

I recommend that you not only write down what you eat but also the time of day, how you felt at the time and if you were alone or with others. This will help you identify patterns and trends in your eating habits if you keep the journal for several days.

And remember, keeping a food journal doesn't have to be a tedious task. Do it for at least a week or two to score benefits. You can write down what you eat on a little notepad that you keep in your pocket or purse, type it in a document or track it with a simple or fancy app on your phone or tablet. Whatever works, just start tracking!

Alberta Scruggs
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you're really serious about losing weight or becoming fit, keep a food or physical activity journal. It's amazing how you'll find the small amount "you thought you ate" turns out to be twice as much. Or, how inactive you really are (less than 20 minutes a day), and you really thought you completed more.

Keeping a food & fitness journal assists you in the following ways:

  • Helps you realize what's really going on (You may have eaten three peices of chicken when you began to journal. Six weeks later your journal indicates you only ate 1 1/2 peices).
  • Shows improvement as you continue your weight loss program (Initially, you walked 15 minutes, three days a week. Now you walk 35 minutes five days a week and your fitness level seems to have improved).
  • Helps determine whether your dietary / fitness interventions are working or not, and what changes (if any), need to occur (You still haven't lost those five pounds. Are you drinking the amount of water you should or are you still drinking high kcalorie fluids?).
  • Provides proof. Interventions / strategies are documented to show the types of eating and physical activity habits you used to lose or manage your weight.

Keep a detailed record of what you eat each day. By writing down everything you eat, along with the serving size, it will help increase your awareness of why you might be overweight. For instance, you may think you are eating a healthful diet, watching your portions. Then after calculating your calories or carbohydrates at the end of the day, you find that you have eaten twice as many as you thought (not uncommon either!).

Interestingly, studies have shown that when researchers ask obese people to record their daily food intake, the results are surprising. The same people who said they ate no more than 1100 calories per day, topped off at an average of over 2,000 calories per day. This made a tremendous difference that resulted in weight gain instead of loss for some people.

Write down what you eat each day, the portion size, and calorie or carbohydrate counts, depending on the weight loss program you undertake. As you go through the day, add up the calories or carbohydrates in your diet. If you are over the suggested limits, make adjustments the next day. If you find you still cannot get in control of your weight, talk to a Registered Dietitian for a personalized weight loss program.

I once had a boss who used to look over my reports I would present to him and whenever he caught me making an error or even an excuse he would say, “Jimmy, numbers never lie.”

Well he was right and that is what I am here to tell you, “Numbers never lie.” When you see the meals you ate and the amount of calories you consumed on paper you get instant feedback. That instant feedback is better known as accountability. The accountability a food journal provides is essential for a successful weight loss program.  People are more often than not shocked by how many calories they consume in a day when they first start using a food journal to hold themselves accountable.

 I have seen people underestimate how many calories they ate in a day by as many as 1000-1200calories! Unfortunately, perception is reality and their reality was that they thought they were eating appropriate amounts of calories to lose weight.  Obviously, when the reality was presented to them in the food journal their habits changed immediately. Fortunately, most of my clients have successfully kept the weight off by simply writing down what they eat, the portion size, how many calories, what time the meal occurred at and keep a running total. You simply need to keep a little notebook with you and record everything you eat. Here is an example:

6am Coffee/non-dairy creamer/splenda- 30 cal/30 cal

7am 1/2 cup oatmeal-140 cal/1 Tbsp brown sugar-52 cal/3 egg white 51 cal/1 whole egg-70 314 cal/344 total cal

1030am low fat yogurt 70cal /blueberries 30 cal 100 cal/444 total

130 pm 2 slices of whole wheat bread 160 cal/ 3 oz chicken 140 cal/ tomato 15 cal/ lettuce 10 cal/ mustard 30 cal 355 cal/ 699 total cal

I am sure you get the idea. The simple act of writing down everything you eat takes a total of 5 minutes per day. How would you feel to lose the weight you wanted to? Is it worth an extra 5 minutes a day? I am sure it is. Good Luck!

Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Studies show that keeping a food journal is linked to weight loss. A journal provides self-reflection to increase accountability and self-awareness. In my opinion, the more you are aware of the amount and type of food you are eating, your motivation or feelings when eating, the more fore thought and control you will have over your food choices.

Dr. Joshua C. Klapow, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Some studies show that keeping a food diary may help you lose as much as twice the amount of weight. Is it a new magic pill? Well, it’s really an old magic pill. The benefit of keeping a food diary—or basically writing down what you eat—has been known for a long time. But one study offers very strong scientific proof for just how effective food diaries can be.

The study was done by researchers at Kaiser Permanente. It followed 1,700 men and women who were either overweight or obese. The people were encouraged to eat about 500 fewer calories a day, to exercise daily, and to follow a low-fat, low-sodium diet. Participants were asked to record daily food intake and their exercise minutes. After 20 weeks, the total average loss was about 13 pounds, but the food record habit predicted success. Those who kept no food records lost about 9 pounds; those who kept six or more per week lost about 18 pounds. Food diaries predicted success.

Many people see a food diary as one extra thing they have to do, but as the findings from this study show, it can have a very powerful impact. Keeping a food diary does not have to be time consuming or complicated. Here are some simple steps to keep in mind.

  • On a sheet of paper or in a notebook, write down what you ate, where you were, what time it was, what you were doing and what your mood was.
  • Be sure and record as you go along. Don’t try to rely on memory at the end of the day—it will ruin the results.
  • Post your food diary where you can see it (on the refrigerator or on a mirror).
  • Keep it up for a couple of weeks and review the diary. You’ll notice that you are eating less “bad” food and more “good” food.
Robert DeVito
Fitness Specialist

Food journaling is extremely important. Consider this: can you accurately recall every single thing that you ate and drank exactly one month ago? We didn’t think so.

  • The more frequently you track how much you move and how much you eat, the better decisions can be made regarding your solution. Ask yourself this: Is my goal short term or long term? If you answered long-term then guesswork has no place in your solution.
  • Journaling is necessary if you do not have a complete understanding of food amounts and need counseling on making better choices.
  • There are multiple levels of compliance with food journaling. Some clients track everything from foods eaten, calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and meal timing, while others just jot down the foods eaten.
  • Innovation Fitness Solutions recommends journaling of some sort for the first phase to gain insight into your habits (good and bad).

Being aware of your habits and choices and having actual data can help you immensely in attaining your goals.

"If you ink it you'll think it. If you don't, you won't."

Phase I - An effective method that I have employed with numerous clients is to have the client journal everything that is eaten and drank for 14 days straight. This gives the client and the coach valuable insights into their habits and choices. From there, the client can choose 2-4 days per week to journal for the next 4 weeks (this helps to maintain the consistency and aids in taking ownership over the new habits being created).

Phase II - The next phase would be to journal on Fridays and Mondays (bookending the weekend) every week and an additional day of the week to insure that old habits are not creeping back into our day.

Phase III - Finally, the last phase would see the client journaling at least 1 weekday and 1 weekend day for at least 2 weeks of each month. This maintenance journaling plan insures that food portions are not increasing over time.

Two of the primary reasons keeping a food journal can help you lose weight are awareness and accountability. Logging your food intake will start to make you more mindful of your eating habits. We make numerous decisions surrounding food intake every day- many of which are subconscious. Because of this you might not be aware of how much food you are really eating. Using a food journal to keep track of what and how much you eat will make you more conscious of your decisions surrounding the foods you eat and therefore help you to make better choices that are more aligned with the goals you have set for yourself.

Also, by logging your food intake you're accountable to yourself every time you write or type things down, and if using a coach to help guide you to your goals, you're accountable to them every time they look at your journal as well.

You might be asking, "Does it really make that big of a difference?" Absolutely! In fact, a 2008 weight-loss study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that after six months participants who logged everything they ate or drank six days per week lost twice as much weight as those who logged their food only one day per week or less!

Teresa Beach
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Keeping a food diary or journal is very helpful for weight loss. It can help you see patterns to what, when and why you eat. It can also be a deterrent to over eating because you don’t want to write down that you over ate something. It keeps you accountable. If you are a results person there are many free online websites and apps for tracking your food and activity each day that are quick and easy to use.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Generally, I'm into guilt trips as much as I'm into using bourbon as a topical anesthetic, but I also think there's a fine line between guilt and motivation. One of the ways you can help re-program yourself is by writing down (or recording for you technophiles) everything that you eat. In a way, it holds you accountable—you won't want to eat bad foods because you won't want the visual reminder of it. For two weeks only—just to establish your new routine—write down everything you eat. Yep, even the three M&Ms you just swiped. (For the technically savvy, some handheld devices have programs that allow you to scan the barcodes of the foods you eat, you enter the how much you eat, and the program will keep track of your calories.)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.