One of the biggest roadblocks that gets in the way of living healthily is not knowing exactly what food we put into our mouths each day, and that's where a food diary can help.
If you think this doesn't apply to you, try the following exercise: spend a few minutes thinking back over the past week and write down all the food you ate and everything you drank in that time.
We're betting you won't get all that far with this first attempt at a food diary.
Sure, you might remember those special meals - that great dinner out on Saturday, for example - but what did you have for lunch a week ago? What snacks did you eat?
That's right, you need to remember ALL the food you ate!
Did you remember those couple of biscuits someone at work offered you? Or that brownie you had with your latte last Tuesday morning?
Maybe by now you get the picture!
Keeping a note of every item of food you consume in a food diary is a great reminder to keep you on track with healthy eating.
A Diary Doubles Weight Loss
Numerous studies have shown keeping a food diary each day can help enormously with our healthy nutrition and lifestyle goals.
For instance, a study of nearly 1700 overweight Americans found that those who kept a daily record of what they ate lost twice as much as those who didn't.
"The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost," said Jack Hollis PhD, the lead researcher in the study by the Centre for Health Research in Portland, Oregon.
Know What You Eat - and Why
12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore wholeheartedly endorses keeping a diary to help you reach your goals more quickly and efficiently.
"Many people don't have any idea how much they eat or how much they spend on food," she says.
"Keeping a food diary gives you the clarity to see where you are now, where you can make improvements and then track the progress you make."
Another benefit of keeping a food diary is that it helps you to see why you've eaten certain foods.
Note down in the diary how you were feeling before you ate something - tired, lethargic and flat, or energised, excited and happy.
Then note down how you felt an hour or two afterwards and how long any change lasted.
"That's important because writing how we feel before or after eating in our diary teaches us to see how we react to certain foods," says Georgie.
"We might, for example, find that our mood and energy slump after we've had a lot of rice or noodles at lunchtime or that our energy soars and then plummets after we've had chocolate in the afternoon."
You might also notice that you reached for a packet of biscuits when you were feeling lonely, bored or had a disagreement with your partner.
Finally, keeping a food diary teaches us to pay attention to what we put in our mouths and to enjoy it more.
"So often people eat foods without even realising it," says Georgie.
"Research has shown that by eating with no other distractions such as TV, reading, music and so on, we can more effectively recall what we've eaten and also feel more satisfied with it."
How to Keep a Food Diary
When deciding how to write your own diary, keep it simple to start with.
All you need is a notebook small enough to take wherever you go, and a pen.
Alternatively you could write your diary in the 'notes' section of your mobile phone, because most people carry that everywhere!
If you're more of a tech head and have a smart phone, you could download a food diary app that not only records your intake but also displays nutritional information such as calories and fat, carbohydrate and sugar content.
There are plenty of phone apps to choose from - just search 'food diary' in the App Store or on Google Play.
Why is it important that your diary be portable?
Because you need to write down everything you consume at the time of eating or drinking it. That way you won't forget it.
Here are some tips to make the diary work for you:
- Be honest. The only person you're doing this for is yourself, and this diary is about helping you live a healthier life. Why lie to yourself or spoil your chances of reaching your goals?
- Write in your diary what you ate or drank, including the portion size. Be as specific as you can, even if you have to estimate quantities. For example, instead of 'coffee' write 'large latte with two teaspoons of sugar'. Instead of 'chicken', write 'two pieces of deep-fried chicken'.
- It's important to include in the diary any add-ons such as condiments, sauces, whether you had cream with your dessert, dressing on your Caesar salad and how many drinks and bar snacks you had when out with your friends.
- Write the items in a simple diary form under headings such as Day, Time, Food, Drink, Mood/Energy Before, Mood/Energy After. Or you might find vertical columns work better for you.
After a week you'll see in black and white exactly what you've been putting into your body.
If you're still unclear, try listing the whole week's healthy food and drink (eg: wholemeal toast, coffee with skim milk) in a column of your diary opposite a column of all the not-so-healthy ones. Then see which column is longer!
If you want to get really specific, you can track in detail how many calories you're consuming each day with your diary. Here's how:
- When preparing your own food, read labels of jars, packets and so on to see how many servings of a food you've had and how many calories, grams of fat and so on they contain.
- Spend some time at home comparing different foods and drinks using scales, measuring cups and so on. You'll discover what 100g of chicken looks like or how many millilitres are in a glass of soft drink and will be better able to estimate when you're eating out.
- Include the size of drink, the amount of chicken eaten and so on in your diary.
- When you're able to, look up the calorie and nutritional information of each food using a book such as Michelle Bridges' Australian Calorie Counter (Penguin, $9.99) or on the internet.
- Include in your diary the brand of food, drink or takeaway outlet if you know it, as some books and websites list calories according to brand.
Continue tracking your food and drink in your diary as you embark on your new lifestyle, and compare it with what you used to consume. After a while, you might find you want to give yourself a big pat on the back!