Why a food journal is the most effective weight loss tool, and 11 things to track every day.
Did you know a simple food journal is the single most effective weight loss tool?
One study showed that the best predictor of whether a dieter will lose weight was whether or not the person kept a food journal. Another study of over 1,600 participants found that keeping a food journal can double a person's weight loss.
According to the National Weight Control Registry, out of 3000 dieters whom successfully lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for longer than a year, food journaling was the number one behavior they had in common.
Science tells us that a simple food journal is the most effective weight loss tool.
If you're trying to lose weight, you need a food journal.
In this blog post I will share:
Why a food journal will help you lose weight
How to keep a food journal
11 things to track in your food journal every day (and why)
A sample food journal
Tips to create the healthy habit of logging your food
Extra credit ways to use your food journal for weight loss
How does a food journal help you lose weight?
A food journal or food log not only shows you, at-a-glance, everything you eat, it also shows you why.
It helps you discover patterns and allows you to make tweaks to your food, water, and activity so you can lose weight.
A food journal gives you all the information you need to become your own personal weight loss coach.
A food journal gives you priceless information.
It tells you exactly what you are eating, how much, when, and how often. Think you’re eating healthy? Your food log will help you determine “yes” or “no.” Your food journal is a clear and accurate picture of your eating habits.
It tells you WHY you are eating and what events or circumstances trigger emotional eating. Do you eat only when you’re truly hungry? Or do you eat because you’re bored, stressed, tired, or because it just tastes freaking amazing? Your food journal will show you.
It tells you how foods affect your body. Does eating chips and salsa make you want to eat the entire bag? Does eating bread give you stomach upset? Do eating veggies and healthy fats give you energy? You won't know until you log 'em.
It helps you spot unhealthy habits, like mindless munching or not drinking enough water.
It helps you create a plan to deal with your personal food issues. When you know what your eating weaknesses are, use this information to make tweaks to meet your weight loss goals.
It allows you to easily track your weight loss progress, and other healthy habits.
Bottom line, a food journal helps you lose weight because it gives you valuable information about what and how much you eat, why you eat (stress, boredom, etc.), how foods affect you, how much water and sleep you're getting, and it helps you spot unhealthy habits or patterns.
It also holds you accountable and allows you to track your weight and progress.
Then use the information in your food journal, like the amazing food detective you are, to be your own weight loss coach and make simple changes to get you on track, and keep you on track.
Now that we've established a food journal is a super secret ninja weight loss weapon, I'll share exactly what 11 things to include in your journal every day, and how to use the information to lose weight.
How to keep a food journal.
I'm gonna be a rebel here and tell you old-fashioned pen and paper.
I love apps like MyFitnessPal as much as y'all, but while an app can give you valuable information (like tracking macros or calories), you can't see your info at a glance. You can't log your feelings. You can't check off if you were physically hungry or why scrolling Instagram seemingly forced you into the cupboard and emerge with a stale bag of Fritos.
Apps are helpful, but a pen and paper journal is gold.
Starting your food journal is as simple as grabbing a notebook, opening to the first page, and writing down what you ate.
Or you can use a printable food journal. I use THIS ONE that I designed. It tracks all the important data I'll share in the next section. It also tracks my weight, measurements, and gives me checklists to plan for a healthy week and a review checklist to review my week.
Food Journal supplies:
(or use a printable food journal like the Epic Diet & Fitness Planner)
11 things to track in your food journal every day.
A food diary is only effective when you use it. I probably don’t need to say this, but it’s also only effective if you are completely and totally honest!
Here are the 11 things you should write in your food journal every. damn. day.
Before you start your day:
1 - Date and weight. Do you have to weigh daily? No. But the weight on the scale is generally how we track weight loss. Daily weighing (without judgment) is a tool the majority of people from the National Weight Control Registry used to lose weight and keep it off.
2 - How much sleep did you get? You might think sleep is unrelated to weight loss, but lack of sleep affects all aspects of your life, including weight loss. (See this blog post for more information.)
3 - Any challenges you will face and a plan to tackle them. Do you have a party planned? A hectic night of running kids to and from their sports? What is happening today that might keep you from following your healthy eating plan? Note it, and create a simple plan to deal with any obstacles.
Throughout the day:
4 - Write the time of any meals or snacks. This means everything you eat, including little licks, tastes and nibbles throughout the day. Those bites add up, unfortunately.
5 - Include exactly what you ate and how much. Be specific. You don’t necessarily have to include weights, measurements or calorie counts (unless your weight loss is stalling), but describe - in a way you understand - how much you ate.
“A salad” is not specific. “A big ass bowl of romaine and spinach, lots of chopped onions, bell peppers, and zucchini, a sprinkle of chopped pecans, and about 2 tablespoons of vinaigrette dressing” is a better description.
If you want to weigh, measure or count calories, have at it.
A note on veggies: I personally don’t ever worry about low carb veggies like peppers, onions, green beans, zucchini, asparagus, mushrooms, garlic, and herbs and spices. In fact, my goal is always to eat MORE. Definitely note what you’re eating, but likely you don’t need to be concerned about over-eating veggies. Just pay attention to toppings and dressings.
6 - Were you hungry when you started your meal or snack? A simple yes, no, or checkmark is perfect.
7 - Were your choices for this meal healthy (according to YOUR definition of healthy)?
8 - Write any thoughts, feelings or insights connected to this meal or snack. If it was a healthy, planned meal you likely can skip this step.
If you ate when you weren't hungry, or if you overate or have have any negative feelings around this eating, jot down your thoughts. We're talking times you grab a handful of Doritos when you walked past the pantry because your kiddo is doing that teenage drama thing again, or why you ate three bowls of ice cream with sprinkles at midnight.)
9 - Log your water throughout the day.
At the end of the day:
10 - Did you exercise? How long and what did you do? (Or, if you track steps on a Fitbit just log your daily step count.)
11 - Do a quick end of day review: Add a quick sentence or two summarizing your day and asking yourself, how can I do better tomorrow?
I like to fill out my food journal throughout the day as I eat but you can fill in any missing information at night if you have a hectic day.
Sample food journal:
Starts with the date, weight, and sleep.
Challenges (and how to combat them): Yesterday was filled with stress eating. I will plan my meals in advance, make time to meditate for 10 minutes, and journal any negative thoughts.
Meal 1 - 11:30am. Hungry? Yes. Healthy meal? Yes. 4 oz. baked cod, 1 guacamole pack, 1.5 c. roasted veggies (potatoes, broccoli, peppers and green beans), 3 Andes mints.
Meal 2 - 5pm. Hungry? Yes. Healthy meal? Yes. Lots of zoodles, shrimp scampi (about 1 cup), spinach salad with lots of veggies, 2 T. EVOO and red wine vinegar.
Meal 3 - 9:30pm. Hungry? Yes. Healthy meal? Yes. 1 cup plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup cherries, 1 packet Truvia.
Exercise: LIIFT 4 workout (30 minutes) plus a 15 minute walk outside.
Water: 60 ounces.
Review: Overall a good day. It helped that I decided on my meals in the morning. Was tempted to grab a string cheese and handful of macadamia nuts earlier in the evening, but wasn’t really hungry and decided to relax and read a book instead. Didn’t overeat and I feel ZERO guilt about my 3 mini chocolates!
Exactly how will your food journal will help you lose weight?
OK, you are armed with your amazing journal full of your meals, snacks, and other awesome data. Now what?
First, keeping the food journal holds you accountable to your weight loss goals. And being accountable to yourself is an amazing thing!
Second, look at your journal with the eyes of a detective (or a weight loss coach!) to see what info you can glean.
If you are consistently losing weight, keep on doing what you’re doing!
Or, use the information to make tweaks to the types of food you’re eating, how much you’re eating, and when. Use your personal data to drink more water, if you’re lacking, or get more sleep.
Write this, learn this!
You can learn a lot from looking at the data you add to your food diary. Here are some of the things you will track, and how you can use that information to meet your weight loss goals.
What did you eat and how much?
Looking at the data in your food log will show you how much (or how little) you need to eat to lose weight. It will tell you what foods fill you up and keep you satisfied until the next meal.
What time of day and how frequently did you eat?
Looking at the times in your food diary helps you see patterns. Does this meal fill you up until the next one? Or what foods cause you to be hungry sooner?
Remember the old days when we were told to eat every 2 hours to keep our metabolism stoked or we would go into starvation mode? This is so much bullshit and has been debunked. If you're eating every two hours either you're not hungry at all, or quality of your food is making you FEEL as if you are hungry. You know how when you eat pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast you're starved in an hour? That's not real hunger. Looking at your food journal will help you learn which types of foods will fill you up until the next meal so you're not grazing the entire day. (Hint: protein, veggies, and healthy fats.)
Were you hungry when you ate?
We eat for so many reasons that have absolutely zero to do with physical hunger. It's super simple to ask yourself before a meal or snack "am I hungry enough for a meal/snack?" Then answer yourself honestly. I have a box in the PLANNER that simply says hungry and I check it when I'm hungry before eating. This helps you listen to your body and become aware when you are eating for reasons other than hunger, like emotional or boredom eating.
Rate your food quality or "was this healthy?"
You don't need a macro calculator or complicated formula to determine if your lunch was nutritious or not. Look at the foods you logged. Do you feel like it was healthy? Did it have fruit or veggies? Was it deep fried from your favorite fast food chain? Was it highly processed? Look at what you wrote and go with your gut. I have a "food quality" box in my printable food journal. I check it I feel my meal was healthy, and leave it blank when it wasn't.
When you do your nightly or weekly review, pay attention to the quality of your food. If you’re eating well, keep it up. If not, think of simple ways you can improve, like making sure to have a fruit or veggie at every meal.
How much water did you drink?
We all know how important it is to drink water. Being dehydrated makes your body hold onto fat. It can also make you feel hungry, tired, lethargic. Start tracking your water every day.
Want to know how much? According to the Mayo Clinic (not your local gym bro)
"Most healthy people can stay hydrated by drinking water and other fluids whenever they feel thirsty. For some people, fewer than eight glasses a day might be enough. But other people might need more."
"Your fluid intake is probably adequate if you rarely feel thirsty and your urine is colorless or light yellow"
What were you thinking when you have an urge to eat (or overeat)?
This is GOLD. The reason we're overweight is because we are eating to much, it's pretty simple. It's totally cool to eat when we are hungry, and that's why we log our food and the time we ate. But what about the times you are overcome with a craving or overwhelming urge to eat? It's pretty intense, right? In fact, not 2 minutes ago I had one of those. Even though I just ate lunch I had this overwhelming urge to grab a snack. I grabbed my journal and wrote down why. Discovering your thoughts is not always easy or effortless. It is a skill you get better at with practice. But what I discovered is that I WANTED TO STOP WRITING THIS BLOG POST. I was outlining it and wanted the post to be short and sweet, and I kept thinking of things to say and was getting aggravated at myself. Eating a handful of nuts would force me to get up from my desk and ESCAPE THE EVIL COMPUTER AND MY BLOG POST! My brain is pretty smart, right? I was super uncomfortable in what I was doing (the writing) and the urge to eat would let me do something pleasurable. Our brains are always seeking pleasure, the sneaky little devils.
It's not that you can never eat when you're not hungry, but be honest with yourself about your desires to eat, overeat, or binge. And know you never, ever have to act on those urges.
Journaling your urges and cravings and thoughts about food will help you make smarter choices. Once I realized what was happening, I decided to stand up and fill my water cup, and immediately sit back down at the computer to do my work. No macadamia nuts required.
How much do you sleep?
Sleep (actually lack thereof) has so many negative consequences and here's a few ways it affects weight loss:
a sleepy brain makes bad decisions
less than 7 hours of sleep slows your metabolism and can lead to weight gain
Science tells us we need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. You can read more HERE.
Your food diary will show you how much sleep you are actually getting. If not enough, you can make simple changes to increase your sleep over time. I use my Fitbit Alta to track my sleep, but you can simply note the time you go to bed and the time you wake up in the morning.
In this blog post I share more info on the importance of sleep, tips to improve sleep quality, and my personal plan to get more rest.
Food Journal Tips:
Here are some strategies to make logging your food super effective:
try to write immediately after a meal so everything is fresh in your mind
be honest - this is for your eyes only - pretending you're eating perfectly (if you're not) will only hurt you
make your food journal a judgment-free zone - it is just a tool
review your day (and week) to make note of any good (or less-than-helpful) patterns
reward yourself for keeping your journal!
you probably don't have to count calories (if you are meeting sensible weight loss goals - one half to a pound a week), but if you find you are stalling it might be time to get out the food scale or measuring cups to see EXACTLY how much you are eating
Extra credit food journaling tips:
Start your day with an inspirational thought or quote. You can google fitness or weight loss motivation or browse quotes on Pinterest. But I like to ask my inner successful weight loss self for advice.... If you have 30 pounds to lose, what advice or encouragement would you give to yourself today coming from a place of having already accomplished that goal? Imagine yourself 30 pounds lighter. How will you be eating, working out, managing your mind? Give yourself a tip coming from that place.
Scan your day for potential obstacles and create a simple plan to overcome them. I do this for holidays or travel or times I'm sick or feeling overwhelmed. What might cause me to overeat or eat junk today? How will I overcome that potential roadblock?
Journal thoughts or feelings or revelations - whether weight/food related or not. I have a journal section in my planner that I fill in every night. Sometimes I journal "stuff" and sometimes it's just data from my day.
If good health is a priority you can track servings of fruits & veggies or other data.
Rate your attitude. At the end of every day I rate my attitude on a scale of 1-5. 5 meaning I felt like a healthy eating rock star, and 1 for those days I said f*ck it and binged on cookies and granola. One bad day isn't a big deal. It's when you see a pattern of negativity that you have to channel your inner weight loss coach and ask "why?" What can I do differently? How can I movitate myself to be better?
As you can see, keeping a food journal is a simple and effective weight loss tool. It gives you tons of information about your eating, sleeping, activity and your attitude. You can use this data to make simple tweaks to your food and environment to lose weight (and keep it off).
So grab a notebook and pen (or use the printable food journal I use) and start today!
Don’t forget to PIN this post so you can find this post in the future!
Are you a busy lady (like me) who really, really wants to live a healthy life? I get it because I’m obsessed with living my best life too. Here you’ll find simple ideas and strategies to plan a healthy and happy life.
I’m Jacqui, by the way, and I’m the crazy busy lady behind Plan A Healthy Life.