Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Being aware of your actions is the first step in making changes that can improve your life. Food, beverage, activity, and weight logs create a feedback loop that help put you in charge of your health. They allow you to recognize what it is that you are doing simply by forcing you to be more aware. When you see your actions and their results on paper, it allows you to decide if you want to continue with your routine or break your cycle. If you do decide to make changes, you'll be able to see exactly how the changes you made impact your results and lead to more weight loss (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016).
Current Research about Food Logs
Current research strongly supports the use of food logs as an effective tool for making nutritional changes for weight loss. At times, it's even referred to as the "cornerstone" of weight loss techniques (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016). A systematic literature review in 2011 analyzed 15 studies that focused on self-monitoring and weight loss (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011). All 15 studies supported the thesis that more frequent self-recording consistently and significantly improves weight loss (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011). Because each study analyzed in the systematic literature review was conducted a bit differently, it's difficult to say exactly how long, how often, or exactly what to include in the log as the ideal combination (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011).
There is even some conflicting research about self-weighing frequency (Casazza, et al., 2015). The 2011 literature review in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that there was a significant weight loss difference between those weighing themselves weekly and those weighing less often. Those weighing weekly had better weight loss than those weighing less frequently (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011). Casazza, et al. reviewed literature available in 2015 and determined that daily self-weighing does not interfere with weight loss, as previously thought. Published studies show that people who weigh themselves daily lose more weight, maintain the lost weight, and are better at preventing weight regain than those who do not weigh themselves daily in comparison to weekly weight checks.
The longer you keep a food log, the better your long-term results will be. A study by Laitner,Minski, and Perri (2016), found that the most successful weight losers completed the most daily food logs and continued to keep logs even after the 6-month weight-loss program ended (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016). This highly successful group lost more than 14% of their total body weight in 6 months and even continued to lose weight during the maintenance phase (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016). The most common weight loss pattern observed in the study is losing more than 5% of total body weight in 6 months, followed by a regain of almost half of that body weight within 1 year (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016). Forty-seven percent of the studied population fell within this group. This mildly successful group kept a food log during their weight loss phase, but did not continue to keep it during the weight maintenance phase (Laitner, Minski, & Perri, 2016).
Bottom line: the more frequently you record, the more you'll know, the more changes you have control over, and the better your weight loss results will be.
Types of Food Logs
How you record your log is up to you. Options include hand-written, on an app or website, with pictures, or a tally chart. A study by Ehrmann, Anderson, & Piatt studied 33 participants, aged 18 to 70, with type 2 diabetes (Hgb A1c 7.5-9%) and a body mass index of at least 30 kg/m^2. The groups practiced food logging for a week with either a digital camera or a handwritten paper food log and then switched logging styles the second week. There weren’t many changes between the frequencies of using the food logs (although the camera almost reached a significantly better difference), changes in blood sugars, nor reported preference (Ehrmann, Anderson, & Piatt, 2014). The key is: whatever log style you decide to use, just keep using it.
Pros & Cons of the Different Types of Food Logs
1. Handwritten Paper Log
Include what matters to you, exclude what isn't important to you
Able to be individualized
More sense of ownership when handwriting your actions
Requires carrying a pen and paper or small notebook
Requires manual calculation for calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat
2. Food Logging App
Several features allow for quick food logging. Some include barcode scanners, picture logging and food recognition
On your Smartphone that you carry everywhere with you anyways
Quickly counts calories for you. Can also track protein, carbohydrates, and fat
Provides quick feedback
Apps sometimes include recipe ideas
Some can sync to activity trackers such as FitBit pedometers
Often unable to add other details like time, where you ate, with whom, who prepared the meal, and/ or if the snack was related to physical or emotional hunger
Need to be tech savvy
3. Photo Logging
Quickest version of food logging
Great for visual learners. Easy to visually review changes
When sharing with a dietitian, the dietitian can more accurately assess your food and beverage habits
Could be embarrassing to do in public
Different sizes of dishes distort the portion size appearance
Does not provide information on calories, triggers for eating (emotional versus physical hunger)
Requires available data storage on your mobile device or digital camera to keep photos
4. Tally or Food Frequency Chart
Ideal for tracking progress towards number-specific goals such as cups of water per day, servings of vegetables per day, physical activity in minutes per week…
Focuses on changes for a specific goal
Great as an introduction to self-monitoring
Does not provide additional information beyond your goal about either beneficial or burdensome habits affecting your weight loss success
What to Track in a Food Log
1. Date and Time-- Sometimes the timing of the day or spacing of the meals and snacks can make an impact on your habits. Keep track to see if you eat more when you eat smaller more frequent snacks or three larger more spaced apart meals. This is a must-have topic in a food log.
2. Food and Beverage-- It isn't a food log without tracking food. Be as detailed as possible. Try to include how the food was prepared (baked, fried, grilled, sautéed, etc.), brand name; if it's fat-free, low-fat, sugar-free. Make sure to track your beverages too. They can be a hidden source of added unnecessary calories. This is a must-have topic in a food log.
3. Measurement-- Tracking your portion sizes and actually measuring your food with measuring cups, measuring spoons, and/ or food scales can help you be more aware of the quantity you are eating. You know what looked like one bowl of cereal? You could be eating three of the recommended portion size and not even know it! It's important to have an accurate measurement if you want to track calories.
4. Calories-- Weight loss at the end of the day is about the energy balance of calories in versus calories going out. Weight loss happens when we are spending more energy than we are taking in. Keeping track of that energy balance can help you fine-tune your food choices.
5. Protein, Carbohydrates, Fat-- Keeping track of these macronutrients might help you reach the goal of eating a more balanced diet. The acceptable macronutrient distribution range is 10-35% protein, 45-65% carbohydrate, and 20-35% fat.
6. Environment Cues-- Where you ate or with whom could change how distracted you are when eating or help you realize if someone you eat with is leading you to make poorer food choices. Do you eat differently when you eat at your desk, in the living room, or at the kitchen table?
7. Physical Hunger versus Emotional Hunger-- For those that struggle with eating out of boredom, habit, anger, sadness, anger, loneliness, or "because it's there", keep track of this! It will give you the built-in pause button you need to think before you acting on your eating impulses. Some people find it helpful to track hunger on a scale of zero to five; five being the strongest hunger. Others find it helpful to identify their hunger as one of the "7 Types of Hunger": head, eyes, nose, mouth, stomach, cellular, or heart.
8. Physical Activity-- Track the minutes and type of exercise. Again, weight loss is about that energy balance: calories in versus calories out. Physical activity can also boost mood and reduce stress (something that food doesn't do!). How do the days that you exercise differ from the days that you don't?
9. Weight--People who log their weight on at least a weekly basis receive the feedback they need to continue with or adjust their current eating habits. Regular weight checks alone can also help decrease weight without even intending to make behavior related changes.
Bottom Line Rules for Food Logging:
1. Be Honest.
2. Be Consistent.
3. Be Detailed.
Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. (2011, Jan). Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systemic review of the literature. J Am Diet Assoc., 111(1), 92-102.
Casazza, K., Brown, A., Astrup, A., Bertz, F., Baum, C., Bohan Brown, M., . . . Allison, D. B. (2015, Dec). Weighing the Evidence of Common Beliefs in Obesity Research. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr., 55(14), 2014-2053.
Ehrmann, B. J., Anderson, R. M., & Piatt, G. (2014, Jan-Feb). Digital photography as an educational food logging tool in obese patients with type 2 diabetes: lesson learned from a randomized, crossover pilot trial. Diabetes Education, 40(1), 89-99.
Laitner, M. H., Minski, S. A., & Perri, M. G. (2016, Apr). The role of self-monitoring in the maintenance of weight loss success. Eat Behav., 21, 193-197.