Would you like to learn a simple trick that doubles the rate of weight loss in studies? It works with any kind of diet you can imagine, from vegan to keto. Before I tell you that doctors hate me, I’ll let you know that “simple” does not mean easy.
The trick is “food journalling”. This habit is one of the examples of what Charles Duhigg calls a “Keystone Habit” in the Power of Habit. A Keystone habit has outsized benefits throughout your life, well beyond the initial impact of the habit itself. According to Duhigg, the simple practice of keeping a food journal once a week led to the following behaviors in a study: first, some participants began recording their food more often than once a week, eventually daily. Some found patterns in their eating: they found they always wanted a snack a certain time and so began planning for it with healthier options. Others began pre-planning their meals by writing down what they would eat before they would eat it. The act of writing down what they ate became scaffolding for these other behaviors, none of which were directly suggested by the study’s authors themselves. After six months, study participants who kept food journals had lost twice as much weight as study participants who hadn’t.
So why does the food journal work?
- Self-monitoring. A surprisingly large part of the diet battle is simply being aware of your habits. If you walk by the front desk at your office twice a day and grab a handful of M&Ms, these calories (and the hormonal impact of the sugar) adds up. But the crucial thing is that you stop noticing that it’s even happening. You do things unconsciously that are having an effect on your bodyweight. Keeping a food journal drags those things out of the realm of the unconscious and into measurement, and as we know from Peter Drucker, “What gets measured, gets managed.”
- Self-policing. Once the behavior becomes conscious and you realize that you are doing something that you didn’t realize, there’s a penalty attached: you’re going to have to write it down. Are you really hungry or just bored? Do you want to write down that handful of pretzels in your journal or can you just wait to have a healthy lunch?
- Self-accountability. Noticing what’s happening with your food gives you a basis to actually make changes, sometimes extending out beyond the food realm and into other areas. For instance, in the past when I’ve used a food journal, I’ve noticed a tendency to drink two or more energy drinks in a day. What this helped me realize was that I needed more sleep instead of another energy drink.
- Planning. You might start to write down your meals before you actually eat them: you realize that you like about six ounces of chicken, two cups of salad and a couple of tablespoons of salad dressing for lunch. So you write this meal down ahead of time. Then when it comes time to eat, you have already decided, letting your past-self decide for the future self.
- Personalization. If you’re following someone else’s diet it can be hard to keep up. They call for organic chard but you hate the stuff. Keeping a food journal can help you learn about food intimately so you know you can replace the chard with kale, collards, or spinach that you prefer.
- Structure. Ultimately this gives you a way of looking at your food that is non-emotional. Josh Hillis says that there are “no bad foods – only foods that move you towards your goals or away from them.” Remember that sometimes the goal isn’t the least amount of bodyfat but enjoying a meal with friends or family.
- Execution. So how do you start and maintain a food journal? Luckily now it’s easier than it’s ever been. The first time I kept a food log around 2000, I would write down in a pocket notebook what I ate, how much, the time, and use a food counting book to write down the protein, fat, carbohydrate, and calories in each item. This technique will still work – all types of journals can work, even down to just taking photos of your food at each meal. Luckily, now there are multiple apps. I use MyFitnessPal (you can follow my diet at mcvickerd), but there are a number of other apps that work too.
I keep coming back to food journals because I know they work – I’ve lost as much as 50 lbs in the past, and a big part of that success has been the food journal.