Why a Daily Food Diary Is Still the Ultimate Weight Loss Hack

Keeping track of what you eat is one of the most effective ways to reach your weight loss goals — and new research shows it takes less than 15 minutes a day.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are aiming to lose weight, the process can sometimes seem daunting.

From adopting a new diet by adding more nutritious items to your meals to finding an exercise regimen you’re comfortable with, figuring out a strategy to lose those extra pounds can sound like an overwhelming change in the way you live your day-to-day life.

However, new research suggests that self-monitoring what you eat might be the most effective part of any diet — and it takes less than 15 minutes each day to do it.

If you bite it, write it

The study, published in the journal Obesity, took a look at how 142 people self-monitored their diets through an online behavioral weight control program over a 6-month period.

Over the course of 24 weeks, they took part in a weekly online group session led by a trained dietitian. Through the program, the participants logged their daily food intake.

The most successful study participants were those who ended up losing 10 percent of their body weight, spending an average 23.2 minutes each day on self-monitoring in the first month of the study period.

By the study’s end at the 6-month mark, that average time had dropped down to 14.6 minutes.

“We were not surprised that frequent self-monitoring was related to weight loss success. We were surprised that 15 minutes a day is all that’s necessary,” lead author Jean Harvey, PhD, RD, chair of the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont, told Healthline.

Yes, on the surface, committing to just under 15 minutes to record and hold yourself accountable over what you’re consuming each day doesn’t sound like a lot, but Harvey said the act of self-monitoring can be daunting to people at first.

“Self-monitoring is a pain! You have to try to guess what foods in the database match the foods you have eaten — no small task when you go out to eat for example — you have to weigh and measure food if your estimate is to be accurate,” Harvey said. “You have to take the time to do it, and you have to admit to yourself that you’ve just eaten what you’ve eaten.”

Ali Webster, PhD, RD, associate director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, told Healthline that many people are “afraid to face the reality of what we’re putting in our mouths.”

“It’s easier to dismiss the contribution that regular trips to the workplace candy stash or second helpings at dinner can have on our waistline if we’re not confronted with seeing it written on paper or tracked in our phones,” Webster, who was not affiliated with the study, told Healthline. “Many people also see monitoring the food we eat as ‘just another thing’ they have to think about during the day, or another task that chains them to their computers or their phones.”

Nevertheless, Webster said, this study shows that the time commitment required for this kind of self-monitoring is pretty minimal.

“We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t spend at least 15 minutes mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Instagram every day,” she stressed. “Why not redirect some of that time toward a productive, healthy habit?”

Why does self-monitoring help? Harvey said that calorie counting is one of the effective strategies out there to manage your weight. She said that it is highly likely people who self-monitored in the study were more aware of just how much they consumed. As a result, they probably were more successful at sticking close to their initial “calorie goal.”

“Self-monitoring can be helpful for both positive reinforcement of making healthy choices and for reining in tendencies to indulge more often than is beneficial for weight or nutrition goals. Seeing healthy meal and snack decisions manifest themselves in improvements to our health is rewarding,” Webster explained. “And being able to say, ‘oh, I forgot that I had some candy after lunch today — maybe I can go easy on dessert tonight,’ is a clear way that having a written food record can lead to making healthier choices overall.”

In other words, self-monitoring allows us to see the good choices we’re making, quickly correct course when we indulge, and make smarter choices in the future.

A growing trend

Finding ways to manage diet and nutrition is gaining popularity.

It’s estimated that about 45 million people in the United States go on a diet each year, while Americans invest about $33 billion annually in buying weight loss products, according to Boston Medical Center.

These efforts to find the best weight loss approaches stand out starkly against the ever-rising obesity numbers among American adults.

More than 1 in 3 adults were said to have obesity, while about 1 in every 13 has “extreme obesity,” according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

A study published in 2013 in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) showed that obesity accounts for 18 percent of deaths among Americans between 40 and 85 years old.

It’s easier than you may think

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find countless apps and products that aim to give people useful tools to record and measure their weight loss goals.

The sheer number may seem overwhelming at first, but how you choose to keep track of what you eat isn’t as important as the act itself.

Also, there isn’t a need to spend a lot of money on a fancy program. Several quality self-monitoring apps are available for free.

For instance, Lose It! is a free app for Apple and Android devices that gives users an easy way to track what they are consuming.

Fooducate is another free Apple and Android app that gives you the chance to look up exactly what is in the foods you eat on a regular basis. The app provides ratings for common items — “Tostitos Multigrain Scoops! Tortilla Chips” have a “B minus” on the app. Compare that to a Coca Cola soda, which has a dismal “D” rating on the app.

Harvey added that her research underscores the effectiveness of self-monitoring as a behavior that is “strongly related to weight loss success.”

She said that finding any way to monitor your food intake “will be helpful for weight loss and maintenance.”

Webster suggests that you do what feels most comfortable and easily applicable to your daily schedule.

“If you’re a person that hand-writes to-do lists or writes in a journal often, maybe a written form of self-monitoring is your style. You can easily jot things down in a plain-old notebook, and there are many different food journals or blank templates available in bookstores or online,” she said. “If you frequently use your phone, tablet, or computer for work or leisure, maybe having an app-based or online food tracking system will be most efficient.

“It’s important to find a system that you like and that you feel comfortable with. Otherwise, the desire to fall off the wagon will be that much stronger,” she added. “We often hear that the best form of exercise is ‘the one that you’ll actually do.’ Same goes for self-monitoring options.”

The bottom line

A new study in the journal Obesity suggests that self-monitoring what foods you consume is the most effective way to lose weight.

Participants in the 6-month study who lost the most weight, spent just under 15 minutes a day recording what they ate and drank.

While it might seem daunting, the researchers urge that finding a way to include self-monitoring in your day-to-day routine will help you hit your weight loss goals.