I have enough diet and exercise books to rival the resources at the Duke Health Library. I also have a well-equipped home gym. I try to eat right, work out regularly, and I keep a food diary. Yes, I document nearly every morsel that passes through my lips.
I admit I’m a bit of a slacker on the weekends — my schedule is off. But during the week, writing down what I eat is as much a part of my life as brushing my teeth. It’s not that I don’t have anything else to do; I work full time and run a household. The reason I’ve maintained a nearly decade long relationship with my food diary is because it helps me maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The Evansville metropolitan area was recently named by a Gallup poll survey as the most obese area in the nation. This is unfortunate and should serve as a wakeup call to those of us who live here. A food diary is one weapon in the fight against obesity. Added to mindful, healthy eating and daily exercise, it can give you the edge necessary to shed those unwanted pounds and keep them off.
My journey began after I quit a job where I worked long hours each day, grabbed fast food for lunch, and was too exhausted to cook nutritious meals when I got home. I had gained 12 pounds and was tired all the time. My clothes didn’t fit. My doctor wasn’t overly concerned, but I felt like my lifestyle was leading me to future health risks. I read in a fitness magazine that eating 1,500 calories a day should support my diet efforts: The reduction would allow me to lose weight (I had been eating an average of 2,000 calories each day), and yet still be enough to ward off hunger, fuel an exercise regimen, and promote a healthy metabolism.
The only way I knew to stay under my calorie requirements was to keep what is now called a food diary. Back then, I was just keeping track of what I ate. At first, I waited until the end of the day to write it all down. Bad idea. By the time I knew I had eaten too many calories, it was too late to make any adjustments. So I decided to check in with myself by midday. That way, I would know after lunch how many calories I was allowed to have for dinner.
It was no fun eating half of a pork chop, a half-cup of green beans, and no potatoes while the rest of my family enjoyed real portions. But that’s how I learned to make better choices and spread my calories throughout the day. That’s also how I learned to “save up” calories or earn them through additional exercise for Friday night pizza and ice cream.
I lost the 12 pounds of fat, put on a little muscle, and was hooked. We may have taken a break or two along the way, but overall, my diary and I have been together ever since.
As in every long-term relationship, honesty is required, and cheating is off limits. A truthful account of everything I eat increases my awareness about when and what I’m eating. I think twice about that handful of chips because I’ll have to account for it later. I have a colossal sweet tooth (in a different life, it was nothing for me to eat a banana split followed by a hot fudge brownie sundae), but journaling helps me limit myself to one cupcake because I really don’t want to see “two cupcakes — 500 calories” in writing.
It also gives me a clear picture of my nutrition. Right now, I’m into the Zone 40/30/30 balanced diet, so I want to know: Are 40 percent of my calories coming from quality carbs such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains? Am I meeting my protein requirement of 30 percent? (Probably not — it’s harder than it sounds.) Is my fat intake healthy and hovering around 30 percent? Am I drinking at least eight glasses of water each day?
Journaling my exercise along with my food intake shows me the big picture. It tells me if my exercise offsets my calorie intake to prevent weight gain. If I’m doing my job, I can still treat myself and yet not have to wrestle with my favorite jeans to get them on.
I also miss fewer workouts when I journal. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. When I see that I ran faster or exercised a little longer, I feel empowered because I’ve kicked my own butt. Journaling shows me where I’ve come from and the progress I’ve made.
Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks food journaling is a good idea. A number of experts, including Jillian Michaels of The Biggest Loser fame, recommend that you keep a food diary as well. Their reasons are basically the same as mine — it helps you account for extra snacking, lets you know when you can afford to enjoy that chocolate cake, raises your awareness of when and what you’re eating, helps you fight “portion distortion,” shows you any bad habits you’ve fallen into, and boosts your self-control.
If you’re thinking you don’t need one more thing to keep track of, journaling doesn’t have to be time consuming. My original diary was a little labor intensive — I wrote my entries long hand and looked up calories in a book that was about the size of War and Peace — but today I “have an app for that.” My choice is Loseit, although there are many other smartphone apps to choose from. Based on my height, weight, and age, the program calculates the number of calories I need to lose or maintain my weight, and the number of calories I burn while performing various exercises. And it counts calories for me; all I have to do is enter the food amount.
No smartphone? Free journaling websites are all over the place: Loseit.com, Livestrong.com, Sparkpeople.com, and more. Remember, keeping a food and exercise diary doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s not about getting down to a certain size. It’s about knowledge and awareness and the power to take charge of your health.