Forget Calorie Amnesia…Use a Food and Exercise Diary!

Research has shown time and time again dieters who keep track of their calories are far more likely to lose weight and keep it off than those who don’t.

There are so many online diaries available to help you track your daily activities. Discover the options, and our top tips for optimising your results when using your food and exercise diary.

Take a bag of M&Ms…

A food and exercise diary is one of the most powerful proven aids for dieting and weight control. If you really want to lose weight and keep it off, writing down your calorie ins and outs is essential.

Take a bag of M&Ms, for example. If you put it in your desk drawer at work, or on the kitchen bench at home, and snack on a handful every now and then throughout the day, you hardly notice you’re eating them. But if you take that bag, read the nutritional information (a small 55g bag contains about 275 calories and 11.5g fat), write down the calorie and fat content, then sit in front of the mirror and eat the whole thing without stopping, it feels a bit different, doesn’t it?

A look in the mirror

Think of your diary as a kind of mirror. A mirror gives you a new way to see yourself and consider your actions. Of course, you probably don’t always like what you see in the mirror (and most of us would be much happier without one) but it is a useful tool. A food and exercise diary works in the same way as a mirror, providing you with a visual portrayal of what you’ve eaten. Instead of “guesstimating” how many calories you’ve packed in and burned off during the day (and let’s face it, when you do so it’s never a very accurate guess) you can see the real calorie cost of your food choices. That bag of M&Ms becomes 275 calories, instead of just an “insignificant” snack.

Recording your food and exercise habits jolts you into realising how much you actually eat and drink each day, and considering whether you’re exercising enough. If you’re keeping to your recommended daily calories, seeing proof of this in your diary is really encouraging. Most diaries will also provide you with a place to record your body measurements, and it’s great to see these changing for the better as you follow your meal plans and exercise goals. If you’re slipping into bad old habits, seeing these in writing really hits home and can motivate you to get back on track. The diary also helps you develop greater self-discipline. You think twice about over-indulging when you have to record it – especially if you arrange for someone to check your diary regularly.

Keeping a food and exercise diary can also help you to spot patterns of behaviour or habits which lead to excessive eating, and help you identify the moods, situations, events, and people which trigger your overeating. For some, this awareness is enough to encourage habit changes which lead to weight loss.

Finally, using a food and exercise diary not only helps you, it helps those who are helping you. Your doctor, dietitian or counsellor can use what you’ve recorded to assess your progress and make tailored recommendations.

“But I hate writing things down!”

If you’re one of those people who just doesn’t click with a paper and pen, try an online food and exercise diary. These are available online. There are plenty of advantages to having an online version of a diary, including easy access to a food database with food counts ready listed, personal profiling, regular check-ins, and diary printing. Online food and exercise diaries also display visual graphs and charts which track your daily, weekly and monthly progress in terms of weight, exercise, and nutritional targets.

However, a paper diary can be just as effective, particularly if you’re already in the habit of writing things down in notebooks and calendars. A diary provides a way to organise everything in one place. Look for a diary that has a “start anytime” format with columns for fats, calories, carbs and exercise, as well as weekly summary pages and a place to record weight and waist changes. Allan Borushek’s ten week Pocket Food and Exercise Diary is highly recommended by many dietitians and doctors.

Top tips for optimising results

A food and exercise diary works by recording all your calories in (food) and all calories out (exercise) and then subtracting the outs from the ins. This gives you your daily total calories, or net calorie intake. You can also record other nutritional targets such as fat, carbs, fibre, protein and water intake, as well as type and duration of exercise. Recording things in detail will help you see which areas of your diet and exercise routines need more attention.

Other helpful pointers for using your diary:

  • Try recording what you eat before you eat it. This helps you stick to your meal plan and not overeat. If it’s written down, consider it done!
  • Take into account the quantity of food you are eating and factor this into your calorie count. This is easy when you use an online diary or app, but if you’re using a paper version keep a careful eye out for foods which list nutritional information for two (or more) servings in one package; if you’ve eaten the whole thing, remember to double the calorie count when recording it in your diary.
  • One way to ensure accurate quantity records is to weigh your food before you eat it. After you’ve done this for a while, you’ll be able to start estimating weights with reasonable accuracy.
  • Don’t forget to record all drinks and snacks! They add up, so don’t ignore them.
  • Try arranging for someone to read your diary on a regular basis. Being accountable to someone else helps you stick to your food and exercise goals. Choose someone who will encourage you.
  • Use your diary to observe connections between high calorie and high fat foods and certain times of the day, week and month. Notice similar connections with exercise patterns, and prepare yourself in advance for those times.

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