Food Diaries: Losing Weight the 'Write' Way
Article date: August 20, 2008
America has a well-publicized weight problem.
Even though Americans fork over billions of dollars a year for weight-loss products and services, about 66% of US adults are overweight or obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aside from well-known risks like diabetes and heart disease, being too heavy also raises a person's risk for many types of cancer. Getting to a healthy weight and staying there can help lower those risks. But as anyone who has tried to shed a few pounds knows, dropping weight can be tough.
If Dieting, Take Note
Forget for a moment about all the diets, pills, potions, programs, supplements, books, gadgets, and gizmos out there. All a person needs to do to lose weight, experts say, is to consistently burn more calories than they eat.
Easier said than done. Studies have shown that dieters tend to significantly underestimate how much they eat, and to overestimate their activity levels.
Instead of relying on guesswork, organizations like the American Dietetic Association and the Food and Drug Administration recommend dieters keep records of what they eat in a detailed, daily food diary.
They may be on to something.
In a recent Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research study, dieters who kept track of what they ate in a daily food diary showed double the weight loss of those who didn't.
The Kaiser team enrolled 1,700 overweight or obese adults, 44% of them African-American, in a long-term weight-loss program. In the first 6 months of the program, participants were offered 20 weekly group sessions led by nutritionists and behavior counselors.
They were asked to consume about 500 fewer calories a day, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, do about 180 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, and keep a daily food diary.
At the end of 6 months, those who kept a diary lost an average of 18 pounds, compared to 9 pounds for those who didn't. (Attending more weekly support group sessions was also associated with greater weight loss.)
"Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records," lead author and Kaiser Permanente researcher Jack Hollis, PhD, told the press. "It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories."
The study appears in the August 2008 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Record What You Eat ... and Why
"For people wanting to change their eating habits, keeping a food diary can be a tremendous help," says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society.
"Writing down what you eat, how much you eat, and how often you eat can really help open your eyes to positive changes you can make," she says.
Update your food diary as soon as you can after eating something, she recommends. You may sacrifice accuracy if you try to reconstruct an entire day or more at once.
It's also important to write down your mood as you update your food journal, Doyle says. "This will help you uncover whether you are eating as an emotional response -- because you are happy, sad, depressed, or angry about something, rather than eating because you're actually hungry."
Some other factors that could provide insight into your eating habits, Doyle says, include:
- Where you are. "Your food diary might make you aware of how many times you end up stopping at a certain doughnut shop you pass on your way to work,” she says. “Seeing the pattern might encourage you to change it, like finding a new route to take."
- Who is with you. "You may find that you split a bagel with your friend Sue at your 10 a.m. work break, whether you're hungry or not, or that whenever you’re with Grandma, she wants you to eat double portions of her famous peach cobbler and you always oblige. If eating with someone or eating more because of someone becomes routine -- especially if you’re not even hungry -- it’s time to break the routine,” Doyle says. “Those half bagels can really add up over time!"
- The nibble factor. "You may find that when you get home from work and are preparing dinner that you're so hungry you nibble your way through prep time,” she says. “You can eat hundreds of calories before dinner. Plan a healthy mid-afternoon snack so you're not starving when you get home."
The most important thing, however, is to be completely and totally honest with yourself about what and how much you eat and drink. Write down every last thing -- from the second helping of bacon and eggs at breakfast, to the 4 cookies you may have binged on before dinner, to that late-night scoop of ice cream.
"Your best chance of success is to get a real handle on what you’re currently doing and go from there," Doyle says.
Food Diary a Part of the Eat-Right Challenge
"A food diary doesn’t need to be fancy to be effective,” she adds. The Eat-Right Challenge encourages people to make simple lifestyle changes that have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and other serious diseases. Visitors to the Eat-Right site can find tasty American Cancer Society recipes as well as helpful advice on shopping and cooking smarter, eating out without wrecking your diet, and avoiding the problem of portion size distortion.
If you think you'd do better with more a structured approach, or with more hands-on, personal support, an Internet search will turn up hundreds of options -- from interactive journals, exhaustive caloric databases, and online support groups to commercial weight-loss programs, nutrition counselors, and food counselors available at varying prices, both at the local and national level.
But at the end of the day, what your food diary looks like is totally up to you, says Doyle. "Just make it suit your personal style, and don't be afraid to experiment and make changes along the way.
Citation: "Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial." Published in the August, 2008 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Vol. 35, No. 2:118-126). First author: Jack F. Hollis, PhD, Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, Portland, Oregon.
Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff
ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.
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