How to Keep a Food Journal

How to Keep a Food Journal

If knowledge is power, then self-knowledge is the greatest power of all; it’s also elusive. Does it ever seem that you’re endlessly dieting and then regaining lost weight? Or maybe your efforts at dieting stall out after initial loss of water weight. Your problem may not be one of willpower; you may simply be forgetting everything you eat during your busy day, or seriously underestimating portion sizes.

My food journal — a personal journey

When I found I needed to lose some fat, I was frustrated. I had always prided myself on knowing food and exercise better than most, and I had been lean, in fact shredded, not so many years before. But the mirror does not lie — it merely reveals uncomfortable truths.

My food choices were generally very good. I was eating natural foods, though not always organic, and staying away from processed, sugar-laden foods. However, I wasn’t really paying attention to serving sizes. I was being sloppy mentally, eating “automatically,” and it showed in my body. I decided to record my food intake each day for one month.

Since quality and quantity both matter, I purchased digital diet scales and a new set of measuring spoons. I also bought a set of inexpensive calipers to track trends in body fat. For a month, I precisely quantified my foods, measuring everything, and calculating calories and “macros.” Before I began to use my food journal as a fat loss tool, I needed a few pieces of useful information:

  • I needed a good estimate of the calories needed to maintain my weight based on my activity level, size, age, and gender. I consulted an online calorie counter[1], eventually settling on an average of the estimates I found there.
  • I needed to know how fat I was, starting out, based on some easily measured value, so I took (with the assistance of a skilled trainer) skinfold thicknesses at four locations[2] with my calipers.
  • Next, I ate as I normally had been but measured my food for one week and counted calories. At the end of the week, I retook my skinfold readings.

When I compared my estimated maintenance calories with actual consumption for the trial week, I discovered the cause of my problem: I had been habitually eating about 500 calories too many daily. My skinfolds had also grown slightly in just a single week.

How can I use a food journal to accomplish my goals?

If you need to lose fat, do as I did. Accurately assess how many calories you require each day to maintain weight using the online calculator. Then subtract 300-500 from that number. Next, choose a food journal app or keep a pen and paper food record. Get the scales and measuring devices you’ll need to accurately quantify your servings, purchase inexpensive calipers, and get started. For the next month:

  • Carefully weigh and measure all of your food, keeping a running total in your food journal of calories consumed during the day. Think of this as your declining-balance account. If you can lose weight on 2,300 daily calories and you’ve already eaten 1,300, you can eat only 1,000 calories more the rest of the day.
  • Resist the urge to weigh yourself; instead, track changes in skinfold thickness. The numbers will gradually get smaller, week-by-week.
  • In your food journal, remember to record grams of carbs, fats, and protein. Use online sources[3] to get the calorie breakdown of fats, protein, and carbs for each food.
  • If one month is not enough, continue until you reach your fat loss goal.

You may find you are eating too many carbs; if so, eat fewer carbs. Maybe you’re eating less protein than you need; eat what you need instead. Are you getting the recommended 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories? Use a fiber tracker[4]. How many ounces of water do you drink per day? How’s that omega-6:omega-3 dietary fats ratio? Are you getting enough magnesium? Zinc?

You can use your food journal for many purposes, to reveal exactly what you want to know! Suppose you have learned that you have prediabetes. You’ll want to manage more than calories alone. What if you used your data to calculate glycemic load of meals, and daily totals?[5] You will have all the data in front of you, to study and then use to eat more mindfully. If you also recorded HbA1c results, the test that measures how well you have controlled blood glucose for the previous three months, and daily glucose testing results, along with time of meals and tests, you could use the information to better self-manage your disease.

Eventually, by carefully observing the sizes of servings and learning more about the foods you eat, you may be able to stop using the food journal altogether. It will have served its purpose.