When I first started this blog, in July 2010, I declared to the world that I would be tracking my food intake for a whole whopping month. I am writing today to say I did just that, and for exactly one month. I wrote it all down on a bright, yellow paper pad that I carried around with me wherever I went and recorded everything I ate- really. However, after sitting down to organize, analyze and present my findings (which is a lot of work especially if you neglect to keep a calorie count as you go), I have decided to share just the first two weeks of my log. I mean, is it really all that exciting to see what a person eats. The important thing for me is to share what I have learned through my experience, and impart the knowledge I gained by researching the topic of food logs.
I decided it was time to take on this endeavor to face my eating habits head-on. I wanted to better understand my eating patterns, why and how I eat, which foods I eat and with whom I eat in order to improve my diet. I also wanted to ascertain if I am in a weight gain, loss, or stabilization mode. I did not restrain myself in any manner, even knowing that I would be sharing my food diary online. This is an area in my life that I have recognized needs improvement. In order to get an accurate understanding of my food choices and eating behaviors, I needed to eat truthfully (as I have been), so that I can learn and make the proper adjustments to reach my body weight goals and exercise performance desired. I can be pretty hard headed and in order for me to believe I need to change a certain behavior I need to "see it to believe it." I know it sounds cliche, but it's true. Keeping this food journal has indeed opened my eyes. I needed to "see" the evidence laid out in front of me in order to drive home the fact that active people like myself cannot eat whatever they want. This is a bad food attitude I have had since childhood. It also showed me why I may be having a hard time getting rid of the muffin top.
Let's start with the basics. What is a food log/journal/diary and why is it important?
A food diary is a record of all that you eat and drink within a certain time frame. Its an effective method in aiding weight loss, and a sensible way of keeping track of what you eat on a day-to-day basis so that you can look closely at ways in which you can change your eating habits and enjoy a healthier lifestyle. Typically you track your food and drink intake for at least one week or longer like this overzealous chick did. You can write in a paper journal like me, or take advantage of the many online and mobile apps out there.
Online & Phone Apps. for food journaling:
Top Healthy Eating & Food iPhone Apps
Fit Day- Free Diet & Weight Loss Journal
Food Log Apps for Android
My Plate- Free Online Food Log
I found it easier to use pen and paper, because it was readily accessible. I write a lot faster and more accurately than I type. Use the means that is quickest, easiest and less time consuming for you. The point is to start tracking your food intake so that you can make real, lasting changes to your health. It's a powerful technique with proven results. People who keep a food diary can double their weight loss according to a study from Kasier Permanente's Center for Health Research (2008). The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.
According to lead author Jack Hollis Ph.D., a researcher at Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, the study showed that “those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories.”
“More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. If we all lost just nine pounds, like the majority of people in this study did, our nation would see vast decreases in hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke," said study co-author Victor Stevens, Ph.D., a Kaiser Permanente researcher. For example, in an earlier study Stevens found that losing as little as five pounds can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure by 20 percent.
"Keeping a food diary doesn't have to be a formal thing. Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It's the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior," says Keith Bachman, MD, a Weight Management Initiative member. "Every day I hear patients say they can't lose weight. This study shows that most people can lose weight if they have the right tools and support. And food journaling in conjunction with a weight management program or class is the ideal combination of tools and support."
[Science Daily, July 8, 2008]
It's also important to learn to estimate portion sizes (as I learned when I first started tracking my food intake), and to record all the ingredients along with calories based on portion size.
Some handy links for keeping an eye on portion size:
NIH- PDF Handout
Portion Distortion- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
Handy Visual Portion Reminders
Don't forget to copy down Brand names as well. Being obsessive and trained in portion sizes is the key to gaining an accurate and complete picture of dietary patterns, or typical combination of foods consumed and amount of calories ingested. I am neither a nutritionist, dietitian nor doctor, so my portion sizes are truly approximations and may not be the most accurate (I did not use a food scale). Also, I failed to track calories as I went which meant I had to go back and look up the calories for every single thing I ate. This took a lot of time and effort. It's the reason why it has taken me forever to get this blog entry posted. Nonetheless, I went back and inserted calorie approximations based on portion size to the best of my ability and understanding from research I conducted using the USDA Nutrition Database and My Food Pyramid.
I learned that even though my portions are approximations and not the most complete representation of my food energy balance and dietary patterns, keeping a lay person's food diary presents a general overview of dietary patterns. That's the key here- general dietary patterns, not diagnosing if your deficient or abundant in certain vitamins or minerals. If after keeping a food journal, you ascertain you may be deficient or overly abundant in a dietary area, I would then recommend seeking the advice of a nutritionist, dietitian and/or your family doctor.
Other things to consider while keeping a food diary for which I neglected and wish I had documented instead of trying to recall after the fact now that I have little more knowledge in the subject, are things such as hunger level and emotions at the time of eating. I wrote down approximate portions, the time of day and what I ate, but not with whom I ate (at least consistently) and my mood at the time of eating. By recording when you eat, you can begin to ascertain patterns such as skipping meals. Including where, what you were doing and with whom you are with, can reveal triggers. Also, writing down how you feel at the time of eating can reveal associations such as feeling anxious, bored or tired with what and when you eat. The more information written down, the better. For instance, I learned that when I work more, I eat less. That is, when I tend to have a busy day I eat modestly, and then the next day or even two days later I am so freaking hungry I eat all sorts of bad food and a lot of it. My guess is that I would do better to have healthy snacks more often so that I do not fall into this starvation/binge mode.
Eventually, writing down everything I ate became a part of my daily routine for that month, then I started to slack off (thinking my tour of duty was done). An interesting thing to note, is that if I start to fall back into my old eating habits, when I pick-up pen and paper and start to record my food and beverage intake, my eating habits begin improving- seriously. I believe writing down what I eat makes me accountable. I take stock of my food choices and make better food decisions- the right choice. When I am eating well, I not only feel better physically (no more sugar rushes and crashes), but mentally. I feel good about myself and my choices. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot from my food journal, but I will not bore you with all the gritty details. Let's talk about how you can use your food log to calculate your daily energy balance- something a little more practical here.
You have studiously logged your food intake, now what? Let's talk about how to use your food diary to assess energy balance. Meaning, how many calories are you eating a day and are you in a weight gain, loss or a stable pattern. Let's use me as an example of how to understand energy balance status.
In order to understand energy balance, what it means for you, and how to use your food diary to figure out if your in a weight gain, loss or stabilization mode, I found a website called livestrong.com. I found this site to give up-to-date, forthright information in an easily digestible manner. It's the site I used to calculate my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) and Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) which you need to know in order to understand your daily energy needs. I also found a great article specifically addressing how to calculate BMR for women. For those who want even more information about calories please check out the calorie corner, where you can learn all about calories.
You'll also learn from this website that BMR and RMR are not the most accurate way to calculate your energy needs, but that actually tracking your activity over 24 hours using an activity calculator is the most accurate. Nonetheless, BMR and RMR calculators provide a quick way to get an idea of energy need based on a general level of activity. Please read this diet and weight loss tutorial . This tutorial explains how to calculate your BMR, RMR and provides an activity calculator. After you read this, you will be better prepared to understand my stats below.
Here are my stats:
Height: 5ft. 10in.
Let's just say I fall in the moderate activity level. That would put my calorie needs (using RMR) at 2,333.
Average calories over 14 days = 2047.83 kilocalories/per day
So, it seems that I am in a slight weight loss mode. Well, I did just have to buy new jeans because I went down a pant size since keeping this diary- that's the good news. I should be jumping up for joy, right. Yet, I am not because my food log has impressed upon me the need to eat better quality food and be consistent. I need to have many good, well portioned and nutritious meals a day. I also need to not skip meals and try to make up for it later. This is what I have been working diligently to improve upon in my diet and eating patterns. It's hard and I can't say I get it right all the time, but I am eating better and with more awareness. I am also feeding my family better; another benefit to keeping a food diary.
It is very important to note that when you increase exercise you need to redo your energy expenditure formula to account for the extra energy you will need and adjust from there.
I am not the food expert here, just a fitness professional who has done a little research. Nonetheless, I am a mom trying to live a healthier lifestyle for herself and her family. I welcome nutritionist, dietitian, food psychologist opinions, advice, what have you as it pertains to what they glimpse from my food diary- rip it up! I am not only curious for myself, but for whoever comes across this blog entry and wants to learn even more about the virtues and vices (whatever they may be) of a food log.
Keeping a food journal takes time, attention to detail and consistency, but it is well worth the effort. What I have learned is that it's okay if the numbers are not exact, because calorie counts are never exact unless you are measuring food and metabolism in a lab. It's also okay if you occasionally forget to write down your hunger level, mood and who you were eating with. However, what is important is the self-monitoring and reflection aspect of food journaling. It's this aspect that brings to light eating habits and behaviors that can be tweaked, hopefully resulting in long term healthier eating. For me, my food journaling was time well spent and that is why I encourage you to take a closer look at what you eat and your eating patterns.
If only I would have realized how much simply writing down what, when and how much I ate would improve my health before motherhood- amazing! So what are you waiting for? Here's to your good health! Be active. Be healthy. Be happy!
Disclaimer: Before starting a diet, making changes to your diet, starting or stopping an exercise regimen, consult with a professional, such as your doctor, nutritionist and/or dietitian.