When it comes down to the business of losing weight, there are a few standard tactics that we all turn to: eat less, move around more, and try not to screw it all up on the weekends. In most cases, those approaches work great, and when we apply them consistently, change happens pretty predictably. But, as many of us have experienced, there are other times when the standard approach hits a wall, and results become more elusive.
The solution can be as simple as adjusting calorie intake for a new body weight or shaking up the old exercise routine to get things moving again. But other times, we’ve let old habits creep back in and fill the gap between weight loss and weight maintenance. That’s when most of my clients say, “are you going to make me keep a food journal?” And I reply, “I am not going to make you do anything. But yes.”
But not for the reasons you might think. Yes, if you want to lose weight then the math of calories in and calories out is something to pay attention to. But food journaling isn’t just about portions and calories. Sometimes, the best awareness we can build is the behind the scenes motivations for why we are eating, not what. Consider keeping a different type of food journal that encourages you to qualify your food before you quantify it.
I have three rules for food logging, and they are easy to follow. First, if you bite it, you write it. I would say that if you swallow it you write it, but that doesn’t rhyme and rhyming is more fun. The point here is that every bite of food contains calories, even the healthy ones. Yes, it is completely possible to sabotage your weight loss by eating too much healthy food! So, if weight loss is a goal and it seems like you are doing everything right and not making progress, it might be time to get into the nitty gritty and focus in on the details. Write it down. Everything. Yes, even that.
Second, resist the temptation to evaluate what you just wrote down. This is data collection, not a performance review. If you don’t like what you wrote, that’s cool. You can change how you eat any time you’d like. But in the initial stages of food journaling, I just want you to write it down and put it on the list of things you ate, without deciding whether it makes you good, bad, or ugly. It just is.
And third, be as accurate as you can be with your portion sizes. Sometimes that means counting out how many nuts were in that handful. Sometimes that means putting your ice cream bowl on a digital food scale and portioning out exactly what you intend to log. Yes, there is a lot of counting things in weight loss. That’s okay because counting things is easy. I’ll bet you’ve been counting since you were a kid, right? See? You’re already a pro.
Those are my rules. Shake off the apprehension and guilt and just track what you eat, as if you are observing someone other than yourself. Once you are logging away, it’s time to take your food journal from a simple list of things you ate into something from which you can learn and draw conclusions.
Look for patterns. Perhaps make a note of why you decided to eat, how hungry you were, and how you felt afterward. Ask yourself whether you’d like to keep doing things that way, and if you want to change, what would have been a better idea. What can you do to make that easier next time?
Pay attention to the time that you eat to identify whether you are eating at regular intervals or going too long between meals. If you are a creature of habit, you may find that you eat at the same time of the day whether you are hungry or not. If you are always in survival mode, you may be surprised to see how long it’s been since you last ate.
Take a big-picture look at your food journal and look for the obvious signs of what needs to change. It is my philosophy that sustainable change affects as few areas of our life as possible, so I take the approach of changing as few things as possible to set things in motion again. Look at what you’ve eaten objectively, and ask yourself if you are creating an environment where you can be successful or one where you are doomed to fail.
Change is not easy, but if the payoff is great enough, it can be rewarding. Awareness leads to behavior change, so being honest about why you decided to eat can play a leading role in forming new habits. Put down the calculator, step back and look at the big picture, and take a holistic approach to your food journal this week.