Forget Calorie Amnesia ... Use a Food and Exercise Diary!

Research has shown time and time again that dieters who keep track of their calories are many more times likely to lose weight and keep it off than those who don’t. Read on to find out why keeping a food and exercise diary works so well.

Did you know there are several electronic and online diaries available now? Get more information here. Also read our top tips for optimising 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. Research shows that dieters who maintain a food and exercise diary not only lose more weight – they keep it off too.

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 now and then throughout the day, you hardly notice you’re eating them, do you? But if you take that bag, read the nutritional information (a small 55g bag has about 275 calories and 11.5g fat), write down the calorie and fat content, and 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 way in which to see yourself that you could otherwise only guess at. 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 that it’s never a very accurate guess) you get to see the real calorie cost. 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 whether you are exercising enough. If you’re keeping to your recommended daily calories, seeing proof of that in your diary is encouraging. Most diaries will also provide you with a place to record 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 old habits that are certain to pack the kilos on, seeing it in writing really hits home and should 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 that lead to excessive eating, and to identify the moods, situations, events, and people that trigger overeating. For some, this awareness is enough to encourage habit changes that lead to weight loss.

And 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 have recorded to assess your progress and make recommendations.

"But I hate writing things down!"

If you are one of those people who just doesn’t click with a paper and pen then you should try an electronic food and exercise diary. These are available for PCs and handheld computers, as well as online. There are plenty of advantages to having an electronic version of a diary, including a food database with food counts ready listed, personal profiling, regular check-ins, and diary printing. Electronic food and exercise diaries also display visual graphs and charts that track your daily, weekly and monthly progress in terms of weight, exercise, and nutritional targets. Check out the Food & Exercise Diary for Palm, Pocket PC and Windows. (See online diary and electronic diary links below).

However, a paper diary can be just as effective, particularly if you are already in the habit of writing things down in notebooks and calendars. A diary provides a way to organise it all in one place. Look for a diary that has a “start anytime” format with columns for fats, calories, carbs and exercise calories, 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. (Click on the link below).

Top tips for optimising results

A food and exercise diary works by recording all 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. But 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 the diary:

  • Try recording what you eat before you eat it. This helps you stick to your meal plans and not overeat. If it’s written down, consider it done!
  • Be sure to take into account the quantity of food you are eating and to factor this into your calorie count. This is easy when you use an electronic diary, but if you are using a paper version, keep a careful eye out for foods that list nutritional information for two (or more) servings in one package; if you have eaten the whole thing, remember to double the calorie count.
  • One way to ensure accurate quantity records is to weigh your food before you eat it. After you have done this for a while, you can start to estimate weights with reasonable accuracy.
  • Don’t forget to record all drinks and snacks! They add up, so don’t ignore them.
  • Try arranging for somebody to read your diary on a regular basis. Being accountable to someone else helps you to 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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