Keeping a food diary is a great way to take a look at your eating habits including what you eat, when you eat, and how you feel when you eat. It can also help you identify possible food intolerances, and if your goal happens to include losing a few pounds, a food log is a great weight-loss tool. In fact, starting a food diary is often the first thing registered dietitians ask their clients to do. The simple act of writing down what you eat can help increase self-awareness, which may lead you to make healthier choices, explains Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition .
In order to make sure you’re getting the most out of creating a food diary you want to make sure you’re keeping tabs on the right things. Here are the six things registered dietitians tell their clients about food logging.
Take your lifestyle into consideration, explains registered dietitian Jenny Beth Kroplin . "There are many online tools, apps, and handwritten versions of food journals and trackers that can be quite helpful." If an app like MyFitnessPal is your jam, go for it. If you'd rather not see the calories, try jotting your food down in a note on your phone or using a good old-fashioned notebook.
If you're a visual person, a photo food journal is another good option. "I say focus on making calories count instead of just counting calories alone," says Sarah-Jane Bedwell , R.D., L.D.N. "For some people, taking pictures of their meals and reviewing them at the end of the day is a better way to do this because they can actually see if there is a balance. Look for a variety of food groups and colors, and pay attention to portion sizes."
2. Consider recording times and emotions, too.
If you're setting up your own food journal (instead of using an app), there are a few details you'll want to write down. "The key elements for documentation are spaces for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus two to three spaces for snacks, a space for exercise, and a space for behavior or feeling," says Kroplin. Logging how you feel when you eat can help you identify emotional hunger cues. "For example, say you jot down that you felt angry when you ate 10 cookies at 4 P.M. A week later, you read your diary and find that you ate those same 10 cookies every time you felt mad. By identifying that habit, you can correct it and start a new, healthier habit," says Lindsey Pine, M.S., R.D., owner of Tasty Balance Nutrition .
Recording the time you eat can also be helpful—personally, when I started logging my food, I noticed that most of my mindless snacking happened after dinner. After recognizing that, I started eating more filling dinners with protein and fiber to keep me full and away from the munchies in my cupboard.
3. Start by writing things down as you eat them.
"Make a commitment to log items right after you eat them," suggests Pine. "If you wait until the end of the day, you’re probably more likely to forget accurate portion sizes and not include small tastes of food, beverages, and condiments." Plus, after a crazy day at the office or running around, logging everything you ate that day can just feel too overwhelming to bother with.
4. And vow to be completely honest with yourself.
"If you aren’t honest with a food journal, the only person you're hurting is yourself," says Keri Gans , M.S., R.D., author of The Small Change Diet . Even though it's tempting to only log the good stuff, hold yourself accountable for writing it all down—even the things you're not thrilled with. *"*Record 100 percent of what you eat—every beverage and every little nibble (even from someone else’s plate) needs to be accounted for."
"Making dinner and tasting your dish while cooking? Write it down. At work and passing the candy bowl for just one piece? Write it down," adds Jodi Danen, R.D., family nutrition blogger at The Average RD . "We do a lot of mindless eating that we don’t always account for. Writing it down is a very visual way of seeing your habits."
5. Don't get too caught up in the calories (but be aware of them).
"While starting a food diary is a fantastic way to become more aware of the food we are eating, it is important to keep in mind that calories are not the only thing that matters when it comes to good nutrition," says Emily Cope-Kyle, M.S., R.D., owner and consulting dietitian at Emily Kyle Nutrition . "Sure, counting calories can help give you a more accurate picture of what you're consuming, but a 1,500-calorie diet full of processed food is much, much different than a 1,500-calorie diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains."
Plus, while calorie counting can give you a good estimate of what foods you're overeating (even healthy but high-calorie ones, like avocados or almonds), it's impossible to be entirely sure. "My number one piece of advice when starting a food diary is not to look for perfection, as you will never be able to 100 percent accurately track your intake, so watch out for becoming obsessed with calories," adds Cope-Kyle.
6. Most importantly, use your food log to learn about your eating habits.
"A food journal may initially tell you how many calories or grams of sugar and fat you are eating, but it can tell you so much more," says Maxine Yeung, R.D., C.P.T. and owner of The Wellness Whisk . "Food diaries are not meant to make you feel bad, but rather to make you aware of your choices and eating habits. They give you insight to your relationship with food."
And it's not all about seeing where you can improve—take notice of the things you're proud of, too. "Look for things you are doing well and pat yourself on the back for those things in addition to the things you can improve upon," says Bedwell.
When approached in a healthy and mindful way, food logs can be a great way to jumpstart weight loss and get to know yourself a little better in the process. Plus, it's a great excuse to invest in a pretty new notebook, right?
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