How to start a food log to support your health
To track your nutrition, you need to see what, when and how much you actually eat
By Leila Merrill
If you want to lose weight or improve your diet for other reasons, observing your real eating habits is a great place to start. After all, you may think you eat relatively healthily, but then, when confronted with a comprehensive log, you might just realize how much all the little snacks or beverages add up, not only from a calorie perspective but a health perspective. Many seemingly “empty calories” aren’t so empty.
Being mindful of your food intake provides the information needed to adjust your habits. Mindless eating becomes a thing of the past, replaced by mindful eating. In the long run, mindful eating is key to smart choices and improved health. At the end of this article, download a fillable food log to track your days.
With this in mind, here are five ways a food log can help improve your health.
- Identify your habits: The act of making yourself aware of what you eat, when, how much, plus calories and nutrients can affect your actions, according to a study in the "American Journal of Preventive Medicine." Circumstances such as where you eat (e.g., in the car, at your kitchen table, at a restaurant) and with whom may give you clues about yourself. For example, if you see that you routinely eat fast food by yourself in your car after a shift, that could signal the desire to hide unhealthy eating habits.
- Manage your weight: Taking note of everything you eat each week, plus all drinks containing calories, can help you identify whether you are eating too little, too much, or about the right amount given your current weight and your goal weight. Make sure you have a scale so you can weigh yourself to track your progress.
- Understand your nutrient intake: You can also see whether you are getting enough, too little, or too many specific nutrients. Apps that help you log your food can help you calculate this if you don’t want to do the math yourself. You may find out, either through logging your food or from the results of blood tests your doctor can run, that you are low on a nutrient. The next step would be to adjust your intake of food rich in nutrients in order to get the recommended daily allowance or the amount your doctor advises for you specifically.
- Build mindfulness: As the food diary helps you with mindfulness as to what you eat and when, you may also notice your “whys.” Were you influenced by people around you or your location? How were you feeling? Write these things down. Plenty of feelings, people or circumstances affect our habits and our health. If you notice a correlation, you may see an opportunity for change.
- Develop better goals: With your growing batch of data, you can make SMART goals:
- Specific: Identify the specific foods or habits to change. For example, eat one serving of vegetables with dinner every day.
- Measurable: Take note of how much you have eaten by reading labels and using your food scale.
- Attainable: Make your goal something you can actually do now – not too easy, not too hard. If you want to eat two servings of fruit each day but usually have one, you might consider making it your goal to eat two servings of fruit three times in the next week.
- Realistic: Some things may technically be achievable but are not realistic. The goal needs to be doable for you as your life is now.
- Timebound: Give your goal a timeframe, like maintaining the vegetables for dinner goal for three straight weeks.
Food logging tips
These three tips will help you master food logging:
- "Write" now: Log your foods and drinks right away so you don’t forget them. Many of us might be able to recall what we ate for breakfast today but are just as likely to have forgotten about a snack we ate later. And yesterday’s breakfast? That’s not likely to be memorable. So keep your food diary handy – whether you are using an app or a paper version.
- Note the numbers: Be sure you record the ounces, portions and calories. A food scale comes in handy.
- Get help: Everyone’s health needs are unique, so it's important to consult a healthcare provider or dietitian to determine the best approach for beginning a lifestyle change related to nutrition. They can also provide tools for tracking food intake.
Sample food log
There are many food log apps available on iOS or Android. Check out MyFitnessPal, Lose It! or apps that are part of weight-loss programs, such as Noom or Weight Watchers. Alternatively, you can always log your food in a blank e-document or a physical journal. The apps will typically do the calorie counting for you; you’ll just need to log the amount consumed – this is where a food scale is a great tool. Also, don’t forget to log the “extras,” like butter or sauces.
- Date: [Insert date.]
- Meal: [Insert meal name or snack.]
- Time: [Insert time.]
- Food/drink: [Insert foods or drinks consumed.]
- Serving sizes: [Insert serving sizes.]
- Calories: [Insert total calories for meal.]
- Notes: [Insert any additional notes on things such as your emotions, any physical symptoms, changes you would make, or any other notes that may help you reach your goal.]
Repeat as needed for all meals and snacks.
Many of the apps will give you an optimal calorie count per day based on your individual goals. This can be a helpful tool so you can track progress. For example, if you’re close to hitting your optimal calorie count after lunch, then you’ll want to find a healthier option for dinner.
This is just one example of how to keep a food log or journal. You can customize it to fit your needs and goals. The important thing is to make sure you are recording what you eat and drink, the serving size, and the calorie count.