When it comes to effective strategies for losing weight and eating a healthier diet, many experts advocate the use of a food diary or journal. The idea is to write down everything you eat and drink each day alongside other relevant information, such as portion size, time of day, degree of hunger and emotional state. Nutritionists and other health professionals often ask their patients to keep a food diary in order to get greater insight into their everyday diet and the areas in which it can be improved, and the concept of tracking what you eat is a key component of popular weight loss systems such as our Vitality partner Weight Watchers.

Keeping a journal is a useful tool even if you’re just trying to keep an eye on what you eat for your own purposes. Studies have shown that weight loss candidates who keep a food diary tend to lose more weight in a given period than those who don’t track their food intake, so it’s certainly a tool worth considering if you’re looking to improve your health. Here are some tips on how keeping a food diary can help you achieve your healthy lifestyle goals:

How a food diary can help you lose weight

One of the most useful aspects of a food diary is that it creates a much greater awareness of what – and how much – you eat on a daily basis. Many people only focus on their three main meals, and forget about snacks, beverages and all the other incidental eating that most of us engage in regularly. By writing down every mouthful you ingest, not only will you find yourself eating more mindfully, but you’ll experience a greater sense of accountability when it comes to your eating habits, too – it’s harder to ignore what you’re taking in when it’s all noted down on paper.

Portion control is another area that can prove a bit of an eye-opener if you take the time to measure and note down the precise quantities you consume. Many people are surprised that their “small” bowl of pasta actually contains the equivalent of two or three servings. This is particularly handy if you’re counting calories, as it makes it much easier to determine your true intake – not to mention where in your diet it might be easiest to trim some calories, if you need to cut back.

A food diary is also a helpful way of identifying any patterns or habits in your eating, including any physical or emotional triggers that may inspire you to eat even when you’re not hungry. For instance, you may find you always eat chocolate in the middle of the afternoon because you’re tired, or that you chow down on crisps out of habit while watching your favourite television programme. Maybe you tend to eat more after consuming alcohol, or raid the fridge whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious; you might even “reward” yourself with a sugary treat every time you complete a tough workout. Once you identify any trends in your eating, you can decide if these are getting in the way of your weight loss goals and take appropriate action.

Keeping track of your health with a food journal

There are other ways in which keeping a food diary can support your efforts to be healthy that aren’t directly related to losing weight. For instance, tracking the foods you eat can help you identify any deficits in your diet or areas in which you could do better – whether that means incorporating more green vegetables in your menu, or choosing whole grains on a more regular basis.

If you suspect you’re suffering from a food allergy or intolerance, keeping track of how you feel after eating can help establish if a reaction is indeed taking place, and which food might be triggering it. You can then try eliminating that food from your diet for a period of time to see if the symptoms cease, before reintroducing it to see if they come back.
For those with specific health conditions with a dietary element, keeping a food diary can help you manage your condition by monitoring your nutritional intake or highlighting certain foods which may make your symptoms worse. A good example is a patient with diabetes who needs to keep track of their carbohydrate intake, or someone who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who wants to see if certain foods trigger an attack.

Tips for making the most of your food diary

In order to maximise the benefits of keeping your food journal, is important to decide at the outset what you want to achieve. Are you looking to measure your calorie consumption with precision? If so, you’ll need to weigh or measure all the food you eat, and break certain dishes down into their individual ingredients in order to establish an accurate figure. However, if you’re simply trying to get a clearer overview of your eating habits, then a more general description may suffice – you may not even necessarily have to focus on calories.

If emotional eating is an issue, you’ll certainly wish to make a note of how you’re feeling before, during and after eating a particular food. It may also be useful to observe the time of day, where you are and what you’re doing, and even who you’re with, as all of these factors can influence your emotions, and therefore your food intake.

Try to record foods in your diary as soon as possible after you’ve finished eating – that way you’re less likely to forget certain items or misrepresent the portion size consumed. It’s also a good idea to write in your food diary at least five days a week – preferably more – in order to get a comprehensive sense of your eating habits. Find a format that works for you, whether it’s a simple notebook and pen, or one of the online food diaries and food tracking apps that have become popular in recent years. Whatever you use, make sure you’ve made provisions to continue recording foods even when you’re away from home – even if that means taking temporary notes on a scrap of paper in a restaurant, to be written up later.

Most importantly, be honest in your food diary – don’t “accidentally” leave out that unexpected biscuit binge, or forget about the handful of sweeties you took from a colleague’s stash at work. Also take note of incidentals, such as that extra half-glass of wine that finishes the bottle, or a forkful of food stolen from your partner’s plate – even food you taste while in the process of cooking counts. For your food diary to be really useful, it needs to be a true representation of what you eat – so don’t forget to include every last bite!