The Food Diary: An Effective and Underestimated Weight Loss Weapon

Lose weight - food diary

Losing weight is simple. Balance your calories in versus the calories you burn and you’re set. Right?

Research shows that there is a bit more to losing weight than caloric balance, but largely it does determine how we gain, maintain and lose weight.

Poor Caloric Self-Awareness

How many calories do you need in a day?

How many calories did your 30-minute morning run burn?

Until recently a couple of years ago, I had no clue. And I am not unique with my ignorance.

I would argue that most people could not accurately estimate the number of calories consumed in their diet.

Research supports my argument. The excerpt below is from the a 2010 survey by The International Food Information Council Foundation.

“Few Americans (12 percent) can accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume in a day for a person their age, height, weight, and physical activity.”

If you consider that a 20-30 minute run burns 200-300 calories and a bag of peanut M&Ms has 250 calories, what hope do we have?

What about a Big Mac Meal (with large fries and large Coke) – it has 1,410 calories.

To put things into perspective, most adults need between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day. A Big Mac Meal is 78% of the low end of an average adult’s daily caloric intake.

These are extreme examples, but even knowing the number of calories in a bag of peanut M&Ms, a Big Mac Meal and the amount that an average adult requires raises your nutritional awareness significantly.

My Experience With a Food Diary

Now that you know approximately how many calories you need on a daily basis, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how many calories you are actually consuming?

I have maintained a food diary twice in my life. Not for weight loss purposes, but to analyze my diet.

1992 – Pen and paper

The first time was I kept a food diary was in my first year of studying kinesiology in university. The course was on human nutrition and as part of one of our projects, we were required to maintain a detailed food diary.  This was before the time of iPhone apps and free web-based software that populates the nutritional makeup of each food and drink automatically.

Trying to remember to write down what I ate/drank each day and then find out the calories for each food was a pain in the butt. Nonetheless, the process of maintaining a food diary for a week was interesting and I learned a lot about my eating habits.

2011 – There’s an app!

The second time keeping a food diary was much easier. I did a consultation with a naturopathic doctor to get some medical advice. The naturopath told me to come back in a couple of weeks after I’ve tracked my diet for at least a week. I left the appointment a little disappointed.

I knew keeping a food diary sucked and was not looking forward to doing it again. This time around and 19 years later however, I had the benefit of technology on my side.

I used the Daily Burn tracker to help me log everything. The process was infinitely easier and provided much more information compared to my archaic food diary in university.

Have a look at my food diary from Daily Burn below. Ignore the “calories burned” as I was not tracking that metric and have no idea why it shows me burning so many calories.

Also, no judgment on my food choices – yes, there is a Big Mac in there!

Do Food Diaries Really Help With Weight Loss?

Let’s quickly take a look at what a couple of experts that were previously featured on Healthynomics had to say about food diaries:

“My own experiences with literally thousands of patients would be that people who keep them really well lose three times as much weight as those who don’t.” – Dr. Yoni Freedhoff

“The most important reason is because it provides a record that can be consulted when deciding to make dietary changes.  With the food journal, changes to diet can be made based on data instead of how someone “feels”.  The food journal also helps build awareness of exactly what you’re eating – new clients are often shocked at how much they actually eat once they start keeping a food journal.” – Vic Magary

… and some compelling research

“The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost,” said lead author Jack Hollis Ph.D., a researcher at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore. “Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories. – Science Daily (August 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine)

Why do Food Diaries Work?

A few reasons that come to mind include:

  • accountability
  • increases awareness for portion size
  • provides a platform to recognize emotional ties with eating
  • increases awareness for calories consumed in drinks (soda, juice, etc.)
  • helps to become a more mindful eater

Recommended Tools for Tracking Diet

As I mentioned above, I have used the paper and pen method and Daily Burn. I really liked Daily Burn for its simplicity and that it has a massive archive of foods that take much of the guess work out. For instance, I take a specific brand of multivitamin. The brand was already pre-populated with its vitamin and mineral breakdown making my food diary as accurate as possible.

Other food diaries that have been recommended to me:

Lose It – A good friend recommended Lose It to me. She syncs it with her Fit Bit to extend and manage her calorie budget through daily activity. Lose It also syncs with RunKeeper and Nike+.

Tweetwhatyoueat – I know what you’re thinking and don’t worry. This food diary tool does not involve tweeting to the world everything you’re eating. Tweetwhatyoueat is a Twitter-based food diary designed to answer the simple question, “What did you have to eat today?”

Over to You

Let’s hear your thoughts.

Have you used a food diary to help you lose weight before? Did it help? What apps do you like for tracking diet and nutrition?

I want to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

  • Alyssa Cheung

    Great post i can see how a food diary would work for weight loss!
    I never used a food diary for weight loss, but when i first began going to a naturopathic doctor he had me keep a food diary just with lined paper and pen not even a with a fancy app. I realized what a great connection there was between what i was eating to how I was feeling. Today even ever my body goes wonky or feeling run down I think back to my what i ate and start a food diary for a few days to notice any changes. Since it is not for weight loss mine are usually very generic not looking so closely to portions but rather what exactly I am eating. I also keep every food diary i do so I’m able to look back at them and see what foods settle well with me and what doesn’t.

  • missdk

    I’ve found that a food diary has helped me increase the amount of food I’m eating and ensure I’m fueling my runs, but I can’t get to calorie counting. I make all my food at home and the amount of time it would take to input all my ingredients is not worth it imo.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Yes, it can take some time. But worth the investment and self-awareness….even if you do it for a week.