How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re like many people, you may have forgotten them by now. But if weight loss still tops your list of goals for this year, then there’s one tool you absolutely must learn to use: keeping an accurate food diary.
In my book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, I dedicate three chapters to forming effective dietary habits, but I consider the most important section in the book to be the six pages I spend talking about food logs.
While many dieters have used food logs, few people invest the time and care necessary to make them truly effective. I get it — keeping track of everything you eat and drink is a pain. It takes time, you have to remember to do it in the first place and (perhaps least pleasant of all) a log forces you to confront all of your choices, especially the bad ones.
But this is precisely why a food diary is so powerful: it shines a light on those things in your diet that are keeping you from reaching your weight loss goals.
What to Write in a Food Diary
A good food diary is more than just a list of items you eat each day. It is a true diary, a narrative that tells a tale about your eating and drinking habits and the circumstances relating to those habits.
When you wait too long between meals, do you load up on empty-calorie simple carbs? Does lack of sleep cause you to crave high-fat comfort foods? Do you drink more alcohol when your stress levels are up? A comprehensive food diary can illuminate these things and much more.
The convenience and user-friendliness of mobile weight loss apps render them significantly more effective than web-based and paper diaries.
It isn’t a coincidence that top healthy lifestyle and weight loss programs incorporate dietary tracking in some form or other. A 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health and carried out by Kaiser Permanente found that among more than 1,700 participants, those who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as those who did not.
The Diabetes Prevention Program and the American Heart Association’s healthy eating program utilize food logs to help participants assess and modify their diets, and health coaches like me use the food diary as an integral part of our weight loss programs.
Details, Details, Details
While the Kaiser Permanente study suggests that any food diary is better than none, experience has taught me that the more comprehensive and accurate you can be, the better your chances of keeping the weight off once you’ve lost it. A 2011 study published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine listed 13 evidence-based practices considered key for sustained weight loss. Seven were related to dietary awareness, planning and self-monitoring.
Reading food labels, planning meals and snacks ahead of time, paying attention to portion sizes and drinking water instead of juice, soda or other caloric beverages are all important secondary habits you can pick up when you learn to keep an effective food diary.
To prevent regaining weight after an initial weight loss, these dietary lifestyle habits (along with exercise and certain social habits) are more important than simply tracking calories. And keeping an accurate, detailed food log for even just a couple of weeks can help you build them.
Of course, you can only reap the weight loss benefits of all these habits if you actually build them in the first place. Luckily, technology is here to help.
Apps that Help You Track
Diet and weight loss apps are nothing new, but the latest versions are significantly better than they used to be just a few years ago. Indeed, that 2011 study on evidence-based practices found that of more than 200 first-generation weight loss apps reviewed, only 43 percent incorporated a food diary and not a single one integrated all 13 practices. However, recent research has found that the convenience and user-friendliness of the latest mobile weight loss apps render them significantly more effective than web-based and paper diaries, due in large part to increased adherence.
A 2013 study conducted at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, reported an astonishing 93 percent adherence rate among smartphone app users over a six-month period compared to a 55 and 53 percent adherence rate among the website and paper diary groups, respectively.
And the result of that more frequent food tracking paid off — the smartphone users lost significantly more weight and more body fat as a percentage of weight than the other two groups.
What’s more, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association found that even when adherence rates were similar, app users consumed significantly fewer calories each day than non-app users.
In combination, this research suggests that dietary apps can be a powerful tool for weight loss, especially when the user takes advantage of all the features available, not just the simple calorie and nutrient tracking. Since most of today’s popular weight loss apps have similarly robust lists of features, perhaps the most important consideration when deciding which app to use is how much you like it.
A bit of quick research can help you find an app that’s easy to set up and use, and that one simple tool could be the game-changer in your weight loss effort.