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Food Journaling Controls Your Diet

May 6, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Has your credit card bill ever given you a nasty surprise?

You’re sure that you know where you’ve been spending your money, and you know how much you’ve been spending—but the final number comes as a shock?

Turns out starting the day spending $8 on coffee and a Danish really adds up. What seemed a minor expense somehow turned into hundreds of dollars a month.

That’s human nature. We tend to, habitually, underestimate how little things add up. That’s true about our spending habits. It’s true about things like jars of change (it’s almost always more than you think).

Of course, there’s an easy solution to this conundrum. Making a record helps eliminate hazy guesstimates, and replaces them with hard fact. But it’s not just overspending: We’re just as bad at tracking our eating habits.

What’s worse is, we never get a monthly bill showing us grand totals, and providing a wake-up call.

There’s an easy solution to this. And, I’d argue, it’s probably the most important thing you can do to improve your nutrition and health.

Track That Food

Most people—even those paying close attention—don’t really know how much food they’re taking in every day.

We all fail to properly count certain things. It might be the mayonnaise on your BLT, or the small Coke you had with lunch. It might be the sheer number of sandwiches that come with a bacon “garnish,” or the 300 calories that come from a 13” flour tortilla wrap. (Yes, that’s twice as many calories as two slices of white bread.)

We may think we’ve got a good hold on what we eat each day. But the truth is, no matter how much attention we’re paying, we miss large chunks of our intake. Or, even if we know what we’re eating, our back-of-napkin calculations underestimate the calories contained in some of our food.

The solution is simple—actively track what food you’re eating each day, and how much of it.

There’s a reason every decent diet starts with a food diary. Unless we know how much we’re eating, we will never have a chance to make good adjustments.

And, often, the simple act of recording our intake produces strong, positive change.

Do we really want that 200-calorie cookie? When we have to record it, the decision becomes A Decision, and not just a rote activity.

The simplest way to start a food diary is with pen and paper. However, there are some very powerful tools you can use on your computer or smartphone as well.

For instance, Lose It! will automatically look up the calorie count for each food you enter, and give you a running tally. It will track exercise as well—so you know exactly when you’ve earned an extra treat (and also don’t overestimate how much you’ve earned with that three-mile run). Lose It! is available on Android and iOS.

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Don’t want all those numbers? Calorific—also available on both Android and iOS—gives you a simpler look at your food intake. Using a green-yellow-red color coding system (for good, ok, and bad foods), and real-world serving estimates (was that about the size of a golf ball, or a baseball?), Calorific keeps things simple.

If smartphones aren’t your thing, there are several online tools that work very similarly—myfooddiary.com and sparkpeople.com are two popular sites.

Now that you have the tools, let’s talk about goals.

Know Your Goals

Keeping track of how much you eat—and what you eat—is only the first step. Knowing how much you should eat is at least as important.

Of course, that’s a highly variable number. Below, I’ve put together a couple sample charts, showing you how many calories you’d want to take in daily, based on your gender, height, current weight, and age. Each of those inputs can change your goal dramatically.

I’ve assumed a sedentary lifestyle (cubicle work), and that you only want to maintain your current weight:

Gender Height Weight Age Daily Calories
Female 5’5” 130 50 1450
Female 5’10” 115 60 1350
Female 5’10” 140 65 1450

 

Gender Height Weight Age Daily Calories
Male 6’0” 200 50 2150
Male 6’2” 220 65 2250

 

If you want to lose weight, you should eat 500 fewer calories per day. Exercise vigorously, and you can eat more on those days. An exercise tracking app can help you figure out how much.

There are a lot of calculators online to help you figure out what your personal goal should be. One of my favorites is CalorieKing.com.

However, don’t get too hung up on your official calorie numbers. Calories are a useful rough guideline, but are far from the be-all end-all.

Most important is simply getting a handle on how much food you’re taking in—and exactly what that food is. 200 calories from apples beats 100 calories from ice cream any day.

Keeping a food journal will make you more mindful of what you eat, when you eat, and after a week or two, why you eat. (Here’s a hint: Fueling our bodies is usually secondary.)

It is, without doubt, the most powerful tool in any weight-control arsenal. If you’ve never kept a food journal before, don’t worry—our modern tools make it as painless as it’s ever been.

If you want to take control of your weight—or simply get a better handle on your nutrition—start a food journal. It’s the best possible decision you can make.

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