Today Pat and I went to Chili’s, and I had a double cheeseburger, cheese fries and a chocolate milkshake. We went to a movie and had an extra-large popcorn with extra butter, a huge Dr Pepper, and a Snickers bar. I think Pat loves me. Don’t tell anybody.
Writing down what we eat can make us more aware of what we’re eating. Vicky Cora, MS, RD, LD, Registered Dietitian, recommends keeping a food diary as one of the best ways to monitor your health.
What Is a Food Diary?
A food diary is a meticulous record of all food and drink that you consume.
In your food diary, you’ll want to include:
- Type of food – such as “bacon-and-egg sandwich” or “fried chicken breast”
- More specific details – such as “half-cup corn flakes ” or “6-ounce ribeye steak” or “12 tortilla chips”
- Sauces added – such as “1 tsp mayonnaise” or “quarter-cup brown gravy”
- Cooking method – such as “fried” or “broiled”
- Side items – such as “half a medium pear” or “one cup creamed corn” or “large French fries”
- Drinks – such as “8-ounce coffee with 1 tsp creamer” or “32-ounce Coca-Cola”
- Time of day – such as “7:30 a.m.” or “midnight”
- Where you ate – such as “at home” or “McDonald’s”
- Why you ate – such as “very hungry” or “bored”
“A very important part of a food diary is writing down how much of a food item you’ve eat. If you write down “hamburger,” but don’t specify what was on it, or what kind of bread, for example,” Ms. Cora says, “I’m going to ask you about the bread, the vegetables, and what kind of sauce. Those details matter to your health.”
Why Is Keeping a Food Diary Important?
“A food diary is important with anything — with gastrointestinal issues, monitoring diabetes, weight management. I pretty much recommend it for anything, but for different reasons,” says Ms. Cora.
GI Issues. If you’re having trouble with your bowel, a food diary can help isolate whether you may have:
- Lactose intolerance
- Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
A food diary can help you determine which foods may trigger bowel upset so that you can eliminate them from your diet.
Diabetes Care. Maintaining accurate blood sugar levels is key to managing diabetes. A descriptive food diary, along with your blood sugar diary, can help pinpoint if dietary or medication changes are required. In your food diary, make note of:
- How much carbohydrates, protein or fat you’ve had
- What your portion sizes were
- The time at which you ate a meal or snack
Weight Management. A food diary, Ms. Cora says, helps you control your weight by:
- Making you aware of how much you’re eating
- Helping you identify troublesome times of day
- Assisting you in controlling portions
- Guiding you in making more healthful food choices
- Ensuring you eat three balanced meals a day
“Studies show you have more success with weight loss when you keep a food diary,” Ms. Cora says, “because when you have to write down every snack — every little bite that goes in your mouth — you think, ‘Do I really need this?’”
“Some patients tell me it’s this accountability that allows them to stick to their diets.”
A study in the August 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that dieters keeping a food diary for six days a week lost an average of 18 pounds in six months, compared to 9 pounds for those who didn’t keep a food diary.
Another benefit of a food diary is ensuring you eat more healthfully.
“A food diary can help you plan your meals, reminding you to eat two vegetables at every dinner, for example. The diary helps ensure a balanced diet, which is necessary for effective weight management,” Ms. Cora says.
Tips for Keeping a Food Diary
Write It Down Right Away. Ms. Cora suggests documenting “everything you eat right after you’ve eaten, and not at the end of the day, because you won’t remember or you won’t do it. That’s how you give up on it, because you try to recall everything and you just can’t.”
Focus on Portion Size. Ms. Cora recommends that you avoid counting calories and instead work on controlling portion size and being certain each meal has vegetables, lean protein and complex carbohydrates. Writing it down can help you see that you’ve done so.
Show It to Your Health Care Provider. It’s helpful to take your food diary to your dietitian, physician, or health care professional, who can review it, checking to see whether there is something he or she should adjust, such as your medication for diabetes, says Ms. Cora.
Some Suggested Online Food Diaries
With today’s technology, it’s easy to keep a food diary. “Smartphones calculate everything and give you all the details you would ever want to know,” says Ms. Cora.
Ms. Cora: “When you write down everything you eat and drink in your food diary, you pay extreme attention to your portions. You have to know whether what you’re eating is one cup or four ounces. Some patients tell me it’s this accountability that allows them to stick to their diets.”