For many people, the thought of precisely dialing in their daily calories, carbs, protein, and fats can be so overwhelming, they want to run screaming into the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet and drown their sorrows in sweet-and-sour pork with white rice, with a final stop to the chocolate fountain.
So, here’s an idea: Don’t change anything—but track everything. Seriously! Don’t limit your calories, or even count them. Just write down what you eat and drink—every meal, every day. Use an app, carry around a notebook or a sheet of paper, send emails to yourself after you eat something—whatever works for you. Just do it.
It sounds too simple to have a meaningful effect, but it does! Here’s why you should consider it.
1. The Science Says It Works
A comprehensive study published by the Kaiser Permanente Care Management Institute’s Weight Management Initiative looked at the impact a food diary had on weight loss among more than 1,700 men and women. Researchers concluded that the best predictor of weight loss wasn’t any particular element in anyone’s diet. Instead, it was how frequently the people in the study updated their food diaries. Those who wrote down their food daily lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t write down their food at all.
“It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories,” said lead author Jack Hollis, Ph.D. “The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost.”
2. It Helps You Be More Aware Of Portions As Decisions
The difference between a single razor-thin slice of key-lime pie and a couple of beefy slices may seem insignificant when you’re at the table. If you’re used to having a big dessert—or double portions of anything—you may not even think twice about reaching for seconds. But when you track your foods, you are forced to acknowledge these decisions. Even if you don’t know how many calories the slice contains, you are now more aware of how portions are a decision, not just something that happens to you.
Over time, when you write down what you eat, you’ll likely begin to ask yourself before you grab the spatula, “Do I really want this? Do I need it?” That momentary pause may be all you need to stay on track with your larger nutrition goals.
3. It Can Reveal The Gaping Holes In Your Diet
Have you ever followed your version of the “no fun” diet only to discover that you’re still not losing weight? “How is that possible?” you ask yourself. The answer is often not as mysterious as you think.
Writing down every single morsel you eat will force you to acknowledge all those extra bites and sips you take almost unconsciously throughout the day. If you normally drink a sugary coffee in the morning, or a soda or two during the day, or three glasses of wine a night—or all of the above—you may be so deep into your behavioral patterns that you don’t see them anymore.
Well, all of these things count. If you feel inspired, you can take that extra step and figure out how many calories those snacks contain. But you don’t have to. Simply tracking them may be enough.
How To Write Down Your Food
To create the most accurate food diary, write down the food choices and portion sizes of everything single thing you eat. Do it for a day, or even better, do it for a month—even if you don’t change a single thing you eat. Don’t forget to include the things you drink.
Your food diary can be anything: an app, a notebook, an email or text message to yourself, or whatever else works for you. Just be diligent about the act of writing it down, and that’s enough.
Here’s what not to do: Write down ahead of time what you plan to eat for every meal. Yes, it might seem more efficient to do it this way, but it probably won’t be accurate, because it assumes you’re going to eat exactly what you’ve written down—and many of us don’t. Also, don’t forget to include all the bites and nibbles you might indulge in throughout the day.