When it comes to shedding weight, a food diary can be an important ally.
Could the simple act of keeping track of your food intake help you lose weight?
The answer is a resounding yes, according to a study that found keeping a food diary may actually double a person’s weight loss.
“The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost,” said lead author Jack Hollis, Ph.D., a researcher at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon. “Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories.”
The findings, from one of the largest and longest-running weight-loss maintenance trials ever conducted, were published in the August ’08 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
In addition to keeping food diaries and turning them in at weekly support group meetings, participants were asked to follow a heart-healthy DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat or non-fat dairy, and to exercise at moderate intensity levels for 30 minutes most days. After six months, the average, or mean, weight loss among the nearly 1,700 participants was approximately 13 pounds. More than two thirds of the participants lost at least nine pounds, enough to reduce their health risks.
“More than two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. If we all lost just nine pounds, like the majority of people in this study did, our nation would see vast decreases in hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke,” study coauthor Victor Stevens, Ph.D., a Kaiser Permanente researcher, told the Post.
In an earlier study, Stevens found that losing as little as five pounds can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure by 20 percent.
“We’ve done many weight-loss programs and tend to work with middle-aged and older people,” Stevens says. “When you ask them why they want to lose weight, the first two or three reasons are always health-related: it’s not vanity. They have health issues—hypertension or trouble with their knees, hips, or back, for example. When the body carries an extra 100 pounds, it starts wearing out faster.”
Group meetings were an integral component of the program, largely because they hold individuals accountable.
“People get on the scale when they come in and report to the group how they’re doing with regard to exercise, dietary changes, what their plan was, and how it worked,” Stevens explained. “That accountability motivates them to think through what they’re going to do. In our experience, people are much more likely to follow through if they have a specific plan.”
Resolving to eat less may be a good start, but experts find that it’s not enough because, as Stevens notes, it “relies on willpower, which is notoriously poor in managing behavior.”
Group meetings, such as Weight Watchers, work well and are used in other kinds of health-promotion programs—smoking cessation, addiction, and other lifestyle change programs. But people can develop a social support system separate from a formal program.
“Formal programs are great, but they are not the only way to stay with your weight-loss plan,” agrees Stevens. “There are people who exercise together at a gym or community center, which helps them to stick with the program. If you are going to do that, pick someone who is interested: an uninterested family member or friend is not going to help. The best plan is if both people share similar goals and can help each other. Actually, three or four people is better than two.”
As for the diary, anything will do. The point is to write your daily food intake down as accurately as possible. Stevens recommends reading food labels, checking caloric counts, and getting a grip on portion size.
“The tricky part is getting an accurate estimate of portion size,” Stevens says. “We tend to underestimate. There’s been such inflation of portions served in restaurants and in commercial foods that people’s sense of what a serving is…is today really quite distorted.”
Holidays are a particularly troublesome time to maintain goals.
“From a weight-loss perspective, the holiday season begins in October with Halloween, and it goes all the way through mid-January,” says Stevens. “In our society, we have all these celebrations where we make exceptions—family birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays, personal holidays, and office parties. Many people have special exceptions every week—sometimes two or three times a week. That’s where you get extra calories. Keeping a food diary during the holidays is helpful in managing what you eat. The bottom line is: if you want to lose weight, you have to cut back on calories—whatever time of year.”
For more information about the study or a free copy of a sample food diary, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/fooddiary.