For anyone on a mission to lose some weight, or even just to adopt a healthier diet, assessing your current nutrition habits is essential. The American Council on Exercise article Keeping a Daily Food Log Could be Your Secret Weapon to Weight-Loss Success tells you why food logs are so important and provides links to some excellent online programs to help you out. Here we describe five steps to keeping the type of food log that will give you maximum benefit.
Step 1. Prepare
The purpose of a food log is threefold: (1) record food and liquid intake and the factors that influence intake; (2) assess the quality of your nutritional habits; and (3) evaluate how your diet compares with an ideal diet. The first step to keeping a good log is planning ahead how you’re best going to achieve this purpose. Start by choosing a recording system. Several possible online options are mentioned in the food log article. Additionally, Supertracker.usda.gov and choosemyplate.gov are also useful resources. Most offer a food diary as well as a database where you can input your intake to assess the quality of your diet. In addition to tracking what you eat, it’s also helpful to have a log that prompts you to record what time of day, where you were at while eating, what kind of mood you were in, and how hungry you were on a scale of 1 (ravenous) to 10 (completely full to the point of discomfort). This additional information will help you identify patterns of non-hunger-related eating (for example, if you tend to eat when you’re bored, depressed, hanging out with friends, etc) and other opportunities to cut calories. Finally, before starting your food log think about what you consider an “ideal” diet. For example, are you trying to optimize your heart health and follow a Mediterranean-type diet? Do you have high blood pressure and want to start on the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet? Do you just want a generally healthy diet such as that recommended by the Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate?
Step 2. Record Intake
The best way to get a good idea of your usual intake is to commit to recording everything you eat or drink for two “typical” weekdays and a weekend day. A “typical” day is one that is as close as possible to your usual routine. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep commit to recording everything you eat down to the cups and ounces, if possible. Yes, this is an extremely tedious process and you likely will find yourself choosing not to eat a snack or that extra serving during a meal just so that you don’t have to write it down. However, in order for your food log to be useful, you need to be very detailed and specific. For example, if you eat a bowl of cereal with milk and a banana for breakfast, actually measure out the amount of cereal and milk that you use. Is the banana small, medium, or large? What kind of cereal? Did you add any sugar? How much? Most programs you would use to later evaluate your intake will have a fairly large database where you can input this information to get a nutritional analysis. However, you may find that you go out to eat at a restaurant or friend’s house and don’t know exactly what or how many calories you ate. Many restaurants have nutrition information available on request and your friend may be willing to share with you her secret ingredients if you ask. For best results for your food log, try to approximate your intake to a food available on the database as best you can. Recognize that no matter how diligent you are, the analysis is not going to be 100 percent accurate. That’s ok. Your goal is to try to get as close of an idea of your usual eating habits as possible, realizing that a one to two hundred calorie fluctuation from day-to-day and from the inherent error of using a food log is inevitable.
Step 3. Assess the Quality of Your Diet
Once you input your three days of food intake, whichever computer program you chose should give you a summary of your eating habits, including calories, grams of fat, and any of a variety of other information such as number of servings from various food groups. Once you get the results from your analysis, you might suffer from information overload. Think about what parts of your diet are most important to you and pay special attention to those results. Also, review your log and see if you can identify patterns. For example, do you find yourself eating a large number of calories around 8pm when your mood is “bored” and your hunger rating is “8”(not hungry)? Did you skip breakfast and then eat a 1000 calorie lunch, whereas you might otherwise eat a 300 calorie breakfast and 500 calorie lunch, thus saving about 200 calories (equivalent to running about two miles)?
Step 4. Compare Your Intake to Your “Ideal Diet”
Think back to the “ideal diet” that you identified in step one. Compare how your results stack up to that ideal. If you’re going for a generally healthy diet, Supertracker.usda.gov is your best bet for analyzing and assessing your diet. It will let you know exactly how your diet stacks up compared to the Dietary Guidelines. If you are using a different eating plan as your standard, have the diet recommendations in hand and go through your log and your results to see how you’re doing. You can access the DASH recommendations online and a sample Mediterranean Diet here. When you’re choosing your “ideal” make sure you’ve picked a program that is overall healthy and has an eating style that you will be able to commit to permanently. Otherwise, this whole exercise will most likely end up as a distant, faded memory just like the many other New Year’s resolutions from the years past.
Step 5. Set SMART Goals
Finally, you are set to use the information from your food log to set goals. Think about exactly what you would like to achieve this year. Do you want to lose weight? Overall be healthier? Eat more fruits and vegetables? Eat fewer sweets? Now, try to clearly articulate a SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant and Time-bound) goal. For example, if you find that you’re eating 2500 calories per day, but your calorie needs are only around 2000 calories, you could set a goal to lose four to five pounds over the course of the next month by eating 250 fewer calories per day and burning about 250 calories with exercise per day. You should also specify what you’re going to do to cut those 250 calories, depending on what areas for improvement you identified in your food log. Also articulate what kind of exercise you will do to burn an average of 250 extra calories per day. Write this goal down and post it someplace that you can see every day. And remember, if you don’t want to go it alone, find an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and consider a Registered Dietitian to help. The key here is to set goals that you can and will achieve, putting you well on your way to making your New Year’s resolutions permanent lifestyle changes.
Have you started a food log and run into problems or have questions? Let us know. We’ll be answering your questions on this blog for the next two weeks.
By Natalie Digate Muth
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDNatalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is the Senior Nutrition Consultant for the American Council on Exercise, a community pediatrician, registered dietitian, mom, and author of “’Eat Your Vegetables!’ and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters.”