If one of your current goals is to get a better handle on the food you eat, have you considered starting a daily food record this year? Doing so even for a short time is an effective way to gain insight into your eating habits and make desired changes.
People keep food records â€” which are simply daily logs of everything you eat and drink â€” to lose weight, identify a food intolerance or allergy, improve overall nutrition or better understand emotional eating patterns.
The simple act of recording what you eat can boost awareness and allow you to alter your eating habits subconsciously, says Kaela Pivnick, RD, Medical Weight Loss Dietician for the MultiCare Center for Weight Loss and Wellness.
“Studies show and our experience has demonstrated that people who track their intake even for a short period of time are much more successful with their weight loss than those who don’t,” she says.
If you’re new to keeping a food record, here’s a primer on how to start and maintain one â€” plus some of the key benefits of doing so.
How to start a food record
First, decide whether you want to use a paper notebook or an app.
“Physical workbooks are fine, but they do take away from some of the education,â€ Pivnick says. â€œIf you’re tech savvy enough and don’t mind using a smartphone, many apps give you the macronutrient background of your food in relation to the portion size you provide.”
Pivnick recommends the website MyFitnessPal.com, which is mostly free to use and also offers a downloadable app.
Next, begin tracking. Whether you’re setting up a food record yourself or using an app, Pivnick recommends tracking elements such as:
- Everything you eat and drink throughout the day, including snacks and small bites
- The portion size of each item
- Macronutrients (including carbohydrates, protein and fat)
- What time you eat or drink each item
- How you feel beforehand, physically and emotionally
- How you feel afterward, physically and emotionally
Benefits of a food record
One of the most important benefits of keeping a food record is education.
â€œPeople tend to over- or underestimate what they eat throughout the day, so keeping a food record gives you insight into your food trends,â€ she says. â€œYou’d be surprised at what you can discover just by tracking.”
Secondly, she says, food records educate you on your average intake over a span of time.
“A lot of times people focus on what they did one day, thinking that if they gave in and had a candy bar one afternoon, everything else is ruined. But that’s not always the case,” Pivnick says.
By tracking trends alongside macronutrient data, you can better identify which foods give you the most nutrients for the calories you take in.
“If you record that candy bar and then compare it to Greek yogurt, you’ll see that the Greek yogurt has more nutrients for the calories compared to the candy bar,â€ she says. â€œOver time, people naturally start making better choices based on what they’re seeing in their tracking.”
Mindful eating choices
Believe it or not, simply tracking your food intake can help you make more mindful choices.
“In the beginning, the most important thing is to be as honest as you can,â€ Pivnick says. â€œBecause you’ll be more aware of what you’re eating, you likely won’t make as many impulsive decisions because you won’t want to have to track them. You might think twice before having seconds if you’re not really hungry.”
Identifying emotional eating
Many people find themselves eating from emotions rather than hunger. By tracking your intake as well as how you feel, you might notice that you tend to eat more after a stressful day at work or if you’re sad. By identifying these patterns, you can consciously choose other ways of coping with feelings that don’t rely so much on food, such as counseling, meditation, calling a friend and so on.
Some people find that keeping a food record feels cumbersome or mundane. If this is the case for you, Pivnick recommends thinking of your food record as temporary.
â€œI usually recommend for people to consider tracking for at least a month, and once they have a good understanding of how and what they eat, they can stop and then revisit it a few times each month to make sure theyâ€™re on track,â€ she says.
Pivnick also advises her patients to focus on the bigger reason behind their food tracking goal, whether it’s to take a trip, keep up with grandkids, complete a long hike or simply feel better.
“I work with folks to identify that big goal, and then I remind them of that when they come across those bumps in the road that everyone experiences,” she says.
The MultiCare Center for Weight Loss and Wellness (bringhappyback.com) offers bariatric surgery and medical weight loss programs.
MultiCare Health System, which produced this article, is a not-for-profit healthcare organization