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How to Keep a Food Diary

Most of us have no idea how much we eat sitting in front of the television or when we’re anxious about something or when we’re simply not thinking. A food diary is a self-monitoring tool that reveals a lot about our regular behavior. It’s important to know what, when and how much you normally eat before you can effectively start to change your diet.

Anyone can start a food diary with a pen and paper. There are several, free, pre-printed diary forms available online but all it takes is a notebook to get started. At first, you may want to use one or two pages per day. You should not try to be “good” in your diary. The goal is to see what your current habits are so you can identify small changes to be made over time. Lying in your food diary is counter-productive so be sure to be honest with yourself.

You’re going to write down everything you consume (eat and drink), how you feel at the time and note in detail the amounts and types of food and drink. For example, “7 a.m. breakfast” says nothing useful. “7 a.m. oatmeal, milk and coffee” doesn’t say much either. A more helpful entry might be “7 a.m. 1 cup cooked oatmeal, sprinkled with cinnamon and 2 tablespoons low-sugar syrup, 16 oz. skim milk, 1 cup decaf coffee with one sugar and skim milk; running late for work.” Later when you have more time, you can go back and add the calorie counts beside each item. Make sure you take into account the amounts that calorie counts are based on when calculating calories in your diary. Get into the habit of reading food labels.

Let’s say you usually eat the same breakfast during the week. On the first day of your diary, you can write out everything. On mornings that you eat that exact same breakfast, you can refer to it as “Breakfast 1” or something similar. Make sure you note all deviations if you’re going to use shorthand in this manner. In the breakfast noted above, changing the glass of milk to a glass of orange juice makes a huge difference, eliminating all of the protein in this meal and adding even more sugar in the form of fructose.

Give yourself plenty of space to make notes. Keep your diary with you all day; don’t trust your memory. Record everything, even a breath mint and chewing gum. Jot a note about your activity and emotional state while you were eating. Estimate amounts when eating out to normal measures such as cup and tablespoons; “small salad”, “half serving of pasta” and “bowl of soup” don’t tell you anything about the true amount of what you ate. Record all non-calorie consumption such as water and “zero calorie” diet foods, cigarettes, vitamins, supplements, and medicines.

Use measuring cups and start learning what amounts you’re eating. A food diary can reveal much about portion control and the changes you have to make to get control of your eating habits.

Review your food diary at the end of one week and you’ll see what changes need to be made to your diary and your diet. If you notice that you’re eating three big meals a day, start eating less food more often to keep your blood sugar levels more even throughout the day. If you notice that you drink colas and coffee a lot, you can start replacing one of your regular bad choices with healthier choices such as water. The next week, replace two bad choices with a healthier choice and so on. This way, you cut down on cravings when good habits slowly replace bad habits. If you eat within four hours of going to bed at night, you can start shifting your last meal earlier. If you notice you always have a sugary snack from the machine at work in the afternoon, you can plan on bringing a healthy snack with you in the morning. If you always eat out, you can start planning meals for healthier home cooking. The patterns you notice can be slowly changed over time and recorded in your diary.

Avoid changing everything at once. Pick one thing at a time to change. Start with portion control. Lessen the amounts of the foods you eat regularly. Then start exchanging one bad food choice with one good food choice at every meal. Then start counting calories. When you have a good idea of your average daily caloric intake, then you can go back over your diary and see where the calories are coming from. Divide your diet into proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Get a good guide from online sources such as www.thecaloriecounter.com or the library to help you identify what foods contain what nutrients. Once you analyze in this manner, you only have to do it once on regular foods. For example, one medium sized banana is 105 calories and those calories break down into about 4 from protein, 100 from carbohydrates and 1 from fat.

Besides what you eat, it’s how you eat that matters. Do you speed through meals, hardly tasting your food? Do you eat in response to your emotions? Are you at risk for having an eating disorder? Food diaries give you a lot of information about your behavior.

Generally, we all need to cut down on the sugar and empty calories in our diets and eat more fruits and vegetables and fiber. There are good fats out there and some fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) can only be metabolized with fat so try not to eliminate all fats from your diet. For more on nutrition, go to your library or online sources. Avoid fad diets and keep your diary for at least one month. You’ll be glad you did!

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