If nobody is looking when you eat a cookie, do the calories count? They do if you're trying to lose weight. When trying to eat less, researchers and nutritionists say, logging the fat and calories of everything you eat -- every day -- can help significantly.
"Keeping a food journal is really telling. You get a sense of what you want to focus on," says Debra Wein, M.S., R.D., co-founder of the Sensible Nutrition Connection in Boston. "People really modify intake because they are keeping a journal. They say, 'I just can't have that cookie because I'll have to write it down.'"
More than just keeping you from mindless snacking, Daniel Kirschenbaum, Ph.D., of Chicago's Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology, says that keeping a food journal can help people see patterns in their eating. Kirschenbaum's research shows that those who consistently monitor their food consumption lose weight more steadily and keep it off more successfully than those who don't. That's because the journal-keepers can identify the sources of empty calories and know when they resort to overeating.
Knowing when is important. Some tend to overeat during times of high stress, and using a journal will show you exactly when -- late afternoon, right after work, late night -- you do over-munch. "People who are under pressure eat higher-calorie, higher-fat snacks and they also have less time to prepare healthy food," says Wein. "A journal can tell you when you need to do some planning to make sure that stress doesn't get the best of you -- and your eating habits."
"Prompting" weight loss
What kind of difference can a food journal make? How about losing a pound a week during that eon between Thanksgiving and New Year's? Those are the results reported in Health Psychology in the latest study Kirschenbaum supervised, and which are further explored in his new book, The Nine Truths About Weight Loss: What Really Works (Henry Holt, March 2000). He studied 57 men and women who were supposed to keep food journals, with one group getting reminders to do so. The winter holidays, the most-difficult time of year for weight loss, was picked purposefully.
The results showed that 80 percent of those who got reminders to write down their food intake stuck with their journals consistently, while only 57 percent of those who were not prompted were compliant. "The people in the monitoring group who got daily prompts actually continued to lose weight during the holidays," Kirschenbaum says. "They lost about a pound a week. The other group, the one not getting prompts, gained a pound a week."
You, too, can get what Kirschenbaum refers to as "prompts." He suggests enrolling in any kind of organized weight-loss program, or joining up with a friend and e-mailing or calling each other every day. "You have to keep your goal in your face all the time," he says. "When that happens, you start making choices. You can go for chicken instead of beef, the low-fat dressing instead of the fatty blue cheese."
How to track your eating
The best way to keep a successful food journal is to keep it simple, say experts. Wein says your journal should list the food and amount of calories and fat, the time you eat, exercise, and what activity you were doing while eating if you weren't sitting at a table, such as driving, watching TV, etc. Also include a hunger scale from 1-5 (5 being most hungry) to see if you're eating when you're not hungry -- which in turn can tell you when you may be eating to relieve stress.
Continue food tracking throughout the day and total the fat and calories at day's end. You'll learn a lot about your eating behavior -- both good and bad.