The Diary Diet

by Charles Platkin, PhD

But when it comes to losing weight — I’m a believer. More than 9 years ago when I was overweight, if you had asked me if I overate — my answer would be a flat out “No!” In fact, I would argue that I had the occasional ice cream or cookie, but according to “me,” I followed a “great, healthy diet.” Thinking you eat a lot less than you actually do is a pretty common problem. Many dieters simply can’t understand why they’re not losing weight. Hmmm. I wonder why?

“The fact is, studies have shown that most people eat much more than they realize,” says New York Nutritionist Carey Clifford, M.S., R.D. So what should you do if you want to get real?

How about keeping a food diary? Although there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of clinical research on the effectiveness of food diaries, experts agree that in some form or another, keeping track of what you eat is a critical factor in losing and controlling weight.

One of the main reasons a food diary helps a person lose weight is that it provides a “heightened self-awareness, an early step in behavior change in weight loss,” says Lesley Fels Tinker, Ph.D., R.D., one of the few researchers who has studied “self-monitoring” tools. Keeping a food diary is a way for a person to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Many common weight loss obstacles are preventable, or at least minimized, by keeping a record. A food diary can help you identify:

  • Triggers: A trigger is anything — a mood (happiness, boredom, depression), an event (a fancy dinner, watching TV), even a certain food — that makes it difficult for you to stick to your goal of losing weight. For example, you may find that late-night eating or boredom-induced snacking is the culprit. If you chart what and when you eat, and include your activities and moods surrounding meals and snacks, you may start to see some of your destructive weight control patterns.
  • Meal Patterns: Skipping meals or letting too much time lapse between meals usually leads to overeating later in the day. If you notice your meals are more than 4 hours apart, it may be time to schedule in another snack.
  • Unconscious Eating: It’s easy to consume mass quantities of high-calorie and high-fat foods while sitting in front of the TV or computer. Your food diary allows you to maintain a certain level of consciousness so you can keep this under control.
  • Not Planning Ahead: If high-calorie and high-fat foods appear frequently on your food diary in the form of fast food meals or vending machine snacks, it may be a sign of not planning ahead. A food diary allows you to see your weak spots and to plan for them.
  • Unbalanced Meals: Are some meals heavy on the carbs? Or maybe a protein overdose? Not choosing balanced meals can lead to excessive hunger, which in turn, can result in overeating.
  • Too Many Calories: You may be taking in more calories than you’re burning.

It’s amazing — even though all the experts agree on the weight control benefits of journaling, many people just find it “too difficult.” In fact, a recent survey found that 63% of those trying to lose weight do not keep a food diary, in spite of knowing that it would help them succeed.

Weight loss is one of the few goals that is attainable by being scientific — consume fewer calories than you expend and bam! — you lose weight. Therefore, by being aware of what you consume, you’re taking back the control — you are no longer “flying blind.” Here are a few tips to help you journal your way to good health.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble of writing everything down for the rest of your life — that’s understandable. Not everyone is the journaling type, and some people may not be willing to devote the time to keep a very descriptive journal throughout the day. So it’s important to know what’s doable for you. You don’t have to keep a diary EVERY SINGLE day; just jotting things down 3 days out of every month is enough to make a substantial difference.

Have you ever heard of “portion distortion?” Your eyes may be deceiving you, especially if you’re already desensitized to larger portions. Most of us have very little idea how much we are really eating. Learn to be honest about size. “As a general rule, assume you’re eating 30 – 40% more than you think,” adds Clifford. I’m pretty sure most of us won’t suffer from malnutrition by heeding this advice. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to occasionally measure the foods that you eat — particularly if you are having trouble losing weight.

Make sure you keep your diary or notepad handy. Most of us tend to underreport what we eat, and it’s mostly those “sin” foods that are forgotten, such as cakes, candy, salty snacks, and other high-calorie and high-fat items. You need to come clean with yourself. Write it ALL down — even a few Hershey’s Kisses or one Oreo cookie — it all adds up. If it’s embarrassing or you’re simply concerned about privacy, keep in mind that no one ever has to see your food diary. You can keep it just like any other diary — off limits.

Create a few different ways to record what you’re eating. Studies show that a small notebook that fits into your pocket or bag is the best way to keep you writing. Have extras on hand in the car, house and office. Never give yourself the excuse that you didn’t have a diary available to write down what you ate. “Even if you have to use a scrap of paper and a borrowed pen — just get it down on something,” says Dr. Tinker. I’m sure your memory is excellent, but trust me — put it down on paper.

Over time, it becomes easier. Once you know the nutrient values for the foods you most commonly eat and you become an expert at estimating portion sizes, keeping a food diary is a breeze. Most of us eat the same things for breakfast and lunch, with some variation at dinner.

There are several sources to get nutrient information, but a good place to start is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They have a free database available on their website ( Research shows that getting the “precise measurements” of your nutrient intake is NOT the most important part of keeping a diary; just the act of putting it down on paper will help you shed pounds.

As long as you’re keeping track of the food you eat, how about giving yourself some points for exercising? Whether it’s walking, riding your bike, or going to the gym, it all adds up.

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