Food Journals and Calorie Tracking

I’m starting off the New Year with a basic post that I’ve previously written for some of my body fat loss challenges I’ve run at the gym. The first thing to do before you start trying to change the way you eat is to assess what you are currently putting in your mouth.

Keeping a log of the food you eat throughout the day is a crucial part of a weight-loss plan, as it is very useful to help remember meals, limit portion sizes, make healthier food choices, and keep yourself accountable to your diet! Even if your goal isn’t weight-loss, whether you just want to eat healthier or gain muscle, food journaling is the best place to start. How should you begin?

Record all food and drinks you intake throughout the day in a small notebook, or an online food journal (try MyPlate at LiveStrong.com or MyFitnessPal, which also both have smartphone apps).

  • Be sure to enter the time of day and classify it as a meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) or a snack or dessert. Try to check in and make a food journal entry 2-3 times a day. If you try to remember all the food you’ve eaten and record it at the end of the day, you may forget some snacks or mindless eating occasions.
  • Take note of portion sizes by either measuring out your food (which for the first week of journaling is very useful, but can be meticulous and, in my opinion, borderline obsessive if done all the time) or estimating your servings (check out Men’s Health 12 Easy Ways to Estimate Serving Sizes)
  • You should also jot down why you ate something. Were you hungry? Starving? Or were you eating out of boredom or as a result of stress? Did you work late and have to order take-out? This is a crucial part of your food journal that is often forgotten about. Use it to make conscious behavioral changes. If you overate because you were starving, acknowledging that is the first step. Next time you can be sure to have a healthy snack on hand so you never get to that point. If you ate something because of stress, you can take steps to find alternate, healthy ways of stress management. If you ordered take-out at work, next time you can plan ahead and keep a healthier meal on hand.
  • Entering your food into an online food journal can help you to estimate your total calorie intake for the day.
  • Look back on your snacks and meals for the day. If your goal is weight-loss, what can you cut down on? What healthier food substitutions can you make? Was there ever a time when you went 4 or more hours without eating and how did that affect your food decisions? Do you need to schedule a healthy snack break into your day? Did you have 3 satisfying meals, or did you snack the entire day?
LiveStrong MyPlate
I recommend using a written mini journal because you can easily include the “why” component of your food journal. However, the phone app is nice because you can use it on the go anytime, anywhere. If you choose the app, you can use your separate notes app to record why you ate something.

Now, It’s Your Turn: Starting this week, make a commitment to jot down your food intake each day for 1 week. Simply writing down what you’ve eaten makes your more accountable to yourself and your health. Review and compare each day and reflect on how your diet changes throughout the week. If you feel comfortable, feel free to send me a log of your food intake. Having a second pair of eyes watching over your diet will help to keep you on track, and you’ll be forced to think about how you might justify your food decisions to someone else.

Notice how I haven’t emphasized calorie counting or restriction? That’s because obsessively counting calories is not the way to develop a healthy relationship with food. I wouldn’t wish a life of counting calories on my worst enemy. Inevitably, you will change the foods you eat as you continue to log your food intake. As I said, simply writing it down (and showing it to someone else) keeps you accountable. I believe that a healthy relationship with food is achieved by listening to your body: knowing what, when, where, and why you ate the food you ate.

That being said, calories can be an important measurement tool. To keep it plain and simple, weight-loss is about negative energy balance. Reducing calorie intake and/or increasing energy expenditure will help you achieve negative energy balance to lose weight. Knowing the general amount of calories you consume is just another way to quantify the food you are eating and help you to think about reducing amounts. Some foods can have surprisingly high calorie counts, and that will be useful information when it comes to choosing your food.

Keep up the good work! Journaling is time consuming, but it’s well worth it to become aware of and think twice about the foods you put into your body.

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