Keeping a food journal is not like writing a grocery list. Remembering that you ate a potato, some steak, and green beans for dinner won't provide you with the information you need to make effective changes in your diet. Skipping important details like time of day, that candy you keep in your purse, and your mood when you munch are crucial to helping you eat healthier and lose weight. So take note--the following five points are non-negotiable for a functional food diary. Follow their lead and watch the pounds melt away.
"Don't just write down, 'I had a bowl of cereal.' Instead, include that you had 1 cup of Cheerios, poured on a cup of fat-free milk, and sliced half a banana over the top," says Bethany Thayer, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and Manager of Wellness Programs & Strategies at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. If you're eating out and prefer to avoid taking notes tableside, snap a quick photo of your meal with the camera on your cell phone. The picture will help you remember portion sizes and jog your memory about other details like sauces and side dishes, she says. Make quick notes on your phone to help you track the candies, mints, and sticks of gum that often go unreported throughout the day.
The times of day you reach for something sweet (or salty) can reveal more about your eating habits than your food choices alone. For example, a sugar craving in the a.m. could mean you don't feel rested, or that your breakfast wasn't filling enough. You should also keep an eye on how you distribute your meals and snacks throughout the day, says Thayer. Your food journal may appear somewhat healthy until you realize the majority of your daily calorie intake occurs after 10 p.m.
Including a hunger scale in your food diary will reveal idle eating on a full stomach, and also uncover how loud you let your tummy rumble before refueling. On Thayer's hunger scale, a 1 represents "popping-button full" and a 5 is reserved for times you're so hungry "you could eat paint off the walls." Strive to eat only until you're comfortable--a 3 on the scale--and avoid letting your hunger persist past a 4. Once you've hit that must-eat-to-live, feeling there's no way to stop you from stuffing your mouth.
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How you feel before and after you eat provides important insight into your relationship with food. And reaching for a snack when you're sad isn't the only red flag when it comes to emotional eating, says Thayer. People can also eat when they feel angry, lonely, excited, depressed, anxious, or content. "Some people feel happy, so they have a sundae," she says. "Over time you start seeing patterns, and understanding those patterns will help you react differently in the future."
Slurping up spaghetti at the dining room table may not raise any alarms, but powering down a bottomless bowl of pasta in front of the TV tells a different story. Listing the place where you ate a meal in your food diary is revealing. It tells whether or not you do most of your munching in an environment that's friendly to setting down your fork. If you find you're constantly eating on the go, there's a good chance you aren't aware of how much you actually consume in a day. (And eating anywhere it could be dangerous to record your food--like in the car--probably isn't safe for your diet in the first place.)
Tip Eat in an environment where your meal can be the main focus, says Thayer. "When work, the computer, and the television distract you, you overeat without even realizing it. You don't allow yourself to notice that you're full."
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