Keeping a food and exercise diary

by Ali on July 2, 2008

This is the twelfth part of the dieting basics series – see the series outline for links to all the other posts so far.

What is a food diary?

A food diary is a record of everything you’ve eaten during the course of a day. Most people divide the day into “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner” and “Snacks”, though you could write down the times at which you ate instead. You may also want to add an “Exercise” column, even if you are keeping a separate exercise log … as you’ll need to eat more on the days when you’re doing a workout.

You’ll need to set a daily or weekly target for your calorie intake (I’d recommend going for weekly – it means you can have a couple of days when you relax a bit – though try not to be too far under or over this on a daily basis.)

The main things to record are:

  • What you ate
  • How much, and/or how many calories it was

Some people find that the diary works best if they use it to track calories, rather than just what they ate – others dislike counting calories and find that the act of writing down everything is enough to guide them to healthier choices. Either way, I’d recommend writing down the serving size – and don’t guesstimate! Weigh everything that doesn’t come ready-portioned, especially in the early days of your diet.

Keeping a paper food diary

One of the easiest ways to keep your food diary is to jot it down in a notebook that you keep in your pocket or handbag. Either buy a small, plain pad and divide it into columns for each meal, or get a day-per-page diary … make sure you have enough space to write. Often, slimming and health magazines have free cover gifts of small diaries or six-week booklets for you to use in this way – look out for these!

Another method is to use an A4 chart which you pin to the kitchen noticeboard, or attached to the fridge. This makes it easy to tot up the calories you’ve eaten during the week, as you can fit seven days on one page. To save you having to create a template, I have a standard food diary (available as an excel spreadsheet or word document) … print out as many as you like!

Keeping an electronic food diary

Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t fill in the spreadsheet on your computer instead. One drawback is that you’ll need to switch on the machine every time you want to add something or check what you’ve eaten. If you’re typing into your spreadsheet, you might want to use it to create a plan for the week by entering your usual meals, then you can print it out and make any amendments by hand as you go through the days.

The best online resource I’ve used in order to keep a food diary is Weight Loss Resources. The site does charge a subscription fee, but I think it’s well worth the money (read my review of WLR if you want to know more). You enter all the food you’ve eaten, and the quantities, and the system will show you not only many calories you’ve consumed, but also how many portions of fruit & veg you’ve had, what percentage of your calories came from fat/carb/protein and so on. When you record your exercise, the site automatically gives you extra calories to eat, too.

If you want a similar free resource, FitDay offers an online food and exercise diary (as well as downloadable software that you can purchase). I’ve not tried it out yet, but it looks like a cut-down version of Weight Loss Resources. It’s American, rather than UK, oriented.

Why you should keep a food diary

Remembering to write down everything you eat can sometimes seem like a hassle, and it’s easy to find excuses not to bother. But there are a number of advantages to recording what you eat.

Accountability

If you’re one of those people who “hardly eats a thing” yet is still overweight, writing down everything can be an eye-opener. (And if you suspect you might have a medical problem such as an underactive thyroid, keeping a written record of how much you eat will be useful if you consult a doctor.)

See where you’re going wrong

After a few days of keeping the diary, you’ll start to spot areas where you could easily cut down. Maybe those occasional biscuits that see you through the working day add up to several hundred extra calories by five pm … or perhaps that giant mocha from Starbucks (that doesn’t fill you up at all) contains a horrifying amount of sugar and fat.

Be confident that you can allow yourself a treat

If you reach the end of the day and haven’t consumed your daily calorie allowance you can have that chocolate treat secure in the knowledge that you deserve it and that it won’t derail your diet. Alternatively, if you’re shooting for a weekly calorie target, you’ll be able to “save” a few calories for the weekend and enjoy a meal out or indulgent dessert.

Look back on what you’ve achieved

I’ve found that, on days when I just want to gorge on junk food, looking back over a food diary can renew my motivation. Find a “perfect day” when your willpower was high … or look at what you were eating when you started keeping the diary, compared to now. It’s often inspiring to see how far you’ve come!

…and why you (maybe) shouldn’t keep a food diary

It’s sometimes hard to record what you ate

Some days, your food diary will be easy to fill in – cereal for breakfast, a sandwich and fruit for lunch, perhaps a couple of biscuits, and a recipe which you’ve calorie-counted for dinner.

Other days, it’s almost impossible to remember what you ate and figure out the quantities. Buffets are especial culprits here, as they usually involve lots of bits and pieces (and you’re unlikely to be mentally reciting everything you eat when you’re enjoying the party!) Or perhaps you cook from scratch in the evenings, but have no idea how many calories are in all those ingredients – if so, stick around for the next part in this series…

Feeling food “doesn’t count” when it’s not written down

Closely related to the above, it’s tempting to have “days off” the food diary when you don’t bother writing anything down because you just can’t remember it all accurately enough. I don’t think this is a problem at all … the point of the food diary is to help you get into good habits, not to be an accurate record of everything you eat for months. Do be wary, though, of thinking that because you’re not writing it down, it doesn’t count. Your scales will know, even if your diary doesn’t!

Becoming obsessive

Once you’ve been keeping a food diary for a long time, it can be difficult to go back to “normal” eating. You may fear that you can’t trust yourself to eat without counting calories, or without weighing everything. It might help to ease off gently … perhaps having one week when you don’t write down food, and the next when you do, or tracking what you ate but not the calories. Just make sure you don’t slip into the habit of eating little extras because you don’t have to write them down…

If you’ve never tried keeping a food diary, or if yours never last past a couple of days, commit to doing a whole week and see how it goes. Even if you decide not to carry on, you’ll have spotted some useful patterns and almost certainly identified some “expensive calorie” foods which take a chunk out of your daily allowance without filling you up.

The next part in this series will teach you how to calorie-count a recipe; essential if you want to keep an accurate record of your calorie intake. Make sure you’re getting RSS updates so that you don’t miss it!

(Image above by adamjinj)

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