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Research Confirms Food Journaling Can Help Improve Weight Loss

You’ve undoubtedly heard the advice about writing down the foods you eat when trying to lose weight. Journaling has long been considered by many weight loss experts as an effective, yet strangely often underutilized strategy for lifestyle and behavioral change. It appears there may be something to this as confirmed through research. A research study by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research showed that individuals who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and included over 1,685 participants. Similarly, the National Weight Control Registry which tracks over 5,000 individuals who have lost large amounts of weight and maintained that weight loss, found that an overwhelming majority of successful study participants tracked what they ate.

The research seems pretty clear that writing down what you eat improves results. It may seem like boring and tedious work, but journaling may just make the difference between weight loss success and failure.

This is purely correlative, but I’ve seen this connection time and time again in the personal training industry. The individuals who achieve the best body transformations (losing 20, 30, 40 pounds or more) all seem to have a very clear understanding of their nutrition along with what they eat and how much. Regardless of whether they kept a journal, this was a clear consistency.

This makes sense to me because if you don’t have an idea on even a ballpark amount of calories you’re eating on average each day, your guessing. It’s like throwing darts at a dartboard while blindfolded.

Keeping a detailed food journal helps you become consciously aware of the foods and amounts you’re eating. I believe the mental awareness component of journaling is what really makes this practice effective. Yes, you’ll be able to take your information and enter into a food diary app like Myfitnesspal, but the real leverage here is not in knowing exactly how many calories you’re eating, but rather becoming mindful of portion sizes, nutrient quality, etc. This is what makes the difference in the long run as after all, you won’t be tracking calories forever. Think about it as using a strategy to develop the habits you want, instead of attempting to micro-analyze your diet.


A quick summary on why I think the practice of journaling what you eat (and what you plan to eat) can be an effective strategy.


  • Writing things down makes them part of your subconscious thoughts. The more you program something into your subconscious, the greater your likelihood of habit change. There’s a lot to be said about “top of mind awareness” when you look at success with most anything in life. It’s been proven time and time again that people who write down their goals and refer to them often have far greater achievement rates than those who don’t. The same thing holds true for weight loss and the food-calorie-habit connection. It all goes back to what’s being programmed into your subconscious thoughts.


  • The practice of writing down the foods you eat is very effective from an accountability stand point. You’ll think twice about eating something you know won’t help you reach your goals if you have to write it down. In essence, journaling promotes conscious eating. You may think nothing of walking by and pulling a few pieces of candy out of jar on the counter, or picking on food while you’re preparing it. No thought process will typically enter your mind. But when you have to write these occurrences down it forces you to stop and think. Journaling will help you to evaluate your choices and the consequences of those choices before proceeding. Very simple strategy but also very effective.


  • Journaling will help you to draw out any emotional connections with food. By writing down how you felt when you ate certain foods you can begin to make correlations. If you can recognize the patterns, you can then make a game plan for dealing with the emotional eating. By changing the activity or setting you’re in when you have that emotion, you can change the behavior. For example; if you find yourself making bad decisions with emotional eating when you’re stressed out after coming home from work and eating in front of the TV- you can change your habit by changing the setting. Instead of coming home immediately after work, plan on going to workout, go for a walk, or do some other activity where you won’t deal with the stress by eating.


The process of journaling doesn’t have to be extremely time consuming, it just needs to be a conscious effort to accurately record your nutrition and emotions. The initial commitment to keep a food journal should be for around 4 weeks. It takes that long for new habits to take hold from the programming of your subconscious thoughts. I’m sure you’ve heard about the “21 days to form a new habit.” That’s why I recommend 4 weeks for someone who is going to use journaling as a strategy.


Here’s what I’ve seen produce the best results regarding food journaling as a weight loss strategy.


  • Use a notebook or food journal to track what you eat. Be as detailed as you can with the amounts and when feasible measure things out. Obviously, this can be difficult when you’re eating out, but a lot of times you can get nutrition information from the restaurant. If not, just approximate portion sizes so you know how much you’re eating. There are some things you can always easily measure though. Take for example salad dressing; this is something most people way overdo and end up dumping a ton of extra calories from fat onto an otherwise solid meal choice. Use your spoon to measure out dressing instead of just dumping it on. Little things like this do make a difference.


  • Record the time you ate along with how you felt. This includes your hunger level along with any emotions at that time. This will help you to troubleshoot and strategize later.


  • Take the information in your journal and input into an app like Myfitnesspal. By analyzing the calorie and nutrient content of the foods you eat you’ll be able to see where changes need to be made.


  • Have an accountability partner review your journal weekly. This could be your personal trainer or someone like a close friend or spouse. You simply want to be accountable to someone other than yourself. This is very important and an extremely effective strategy for lifestyle change with diet.


  • Continue keeping a food journal for the 4-week period if you find it’s helping you to make better choices and be more conscious about your eating. Discontinue the strategy if you find that you’re regularly beating yourself up over food choices, are feeling stressed about journaling, or have other negative associations, as this will require alternative strategies.


But I will say this, it’s worth experimenting with and giving it a try if you’re stuck with not seeing the weight loss you desire. After all, success leaves clues. If a majority of the most successful people with weight loss used a food journal, wouldn’t it make sense to go and do likewise? It’s easy to make excuses and come up with any number of reasons for why you don’t want to or need to, but it certainly seems like a good idea to try it.

At the end of the day, you’ll have to answer to yourself.

So how’s your weight loss plan working out for you?

If it’s not as good as you’d like, you may want to reconsider journaling and employing some of the other success habits of people who’ve already “been there and done that” with achieving a body transformation.

I’ll be sharing more of these strategies in upcoming blog posts.

If you’d like to have assistance with a weight loss or fitness program, we can help. Shaping Concepts provides personal training and remote coaching with customization around individual wants and needs. Schedule your free no-obligations consultation today to learn more.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a fitness professional and expert on exercise and body transformation for middle age and mature adults. He seeks to make a difference in the lives of others by providing instruction and coaching with a servant-based attitude. Since 2004 his Charleston personal training programs have helped over 3,000 Lowcountry residents.


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