What I learned by keeping a food journal

A few months ago, I posted about the Gladwyne Diet — my revolutionary weight loss program that involves two steps:

1. I eat less than I want to eat
2. I exercise more than I want to exercise

By following these radical breakthrough steps, I’d lost 10 lbs over 3 months or so, or roughly 0.75 lbs per week. This brought me within about 7 lbs of my goal weight.

And then, there I sat.

Oh, there were reasons for my plateau. I had a book come out. The baby, who had been sleeping through the night, stopped sleeping through the night. There were illnesses, my husband’s work-related disappearance for big chunks of January, February and March, a bizarre and likely stress-related gum infection that had me in pain for an entire week, and so forth. Whatever the reasons, I stopped losing weight and likely gained a pound or two back.

So I decided to do what every nutritionist tells you to do and keep a food journal.  

I’m well aware of the concept. In speeches for the past two years, when I tell people to keep a time log, I say it’s like a food journal. Write down what you eat and it keeps you from eating mindlessly. Write down what you do with your time and it keeps you from spending time mindlessly.

[Some people add in a third element: money. Write down what you spend to keep from spending it mindlessly. That’s true, but there’s a big caveat here. Whatever food you’re eating at that moment, and whatever you’re doing with your time at a given moment is all there is. With money, big chunks of people’s expenditures go out the door once a month. If you’ve got a financial problem, that $500 car payment is a bigger worry than the $3 latte, but a traditional spending log will highlight the frequency of the latter.]

I’ve kind of enjoyed keeping time logs. I like the accountability, and knowing I’m recording my weeks encourages me to plan good things for them. Planning good things both heightens your enjoyment of them, and makes sure they happen. I also like the data analysis.

I was not so excited about keeping a food log. I think the reason is that I like the idea of being able to eat whatever I want. Since I run regularly, and have spent almost the entirety of the past 5 years being pregnant or nursing a baby, I have somewhat higher caloric needs than average. But while I might be able to eat a lot and maintain a certain weight, I cannot eat whatever I want and lose weight, too. For whatever reason, I gained more weight with my third pregnancy than my second or first, and have had a much harder time losing it. Since my weight loss had stalled, I needed a different approach. I also realized that, if I kept a food log, I could still eat whatever I wanted. I’d just need to write it down and look at it there in black and white.

The food log did, indeed, keep me accountable. While I knew, intellectually, that I was snacking a lot, seeing multiple snacks written down reminded me that I was doing it. Even if the snacks were healthy, they still had calories, and weight loss is about creating a calorie deficit. By day two, I was snacking less, simply because I didn’t want to write it down. By day 3, I’d handed over my stash of ice cream “snack size” bars to my kids and did not purchase more at the grocery store. Hopefully I’ll be able to eat them again when I’m at my goal weight. And the good news is, having logged my meals and snacks, I’m starting to lose weight again. For the first time in a year, I’m back in the 120s. 129.5 lbs, to be sure, but I still took a picture of the scale.

Have you ever successfully lost weight? How did you do it? Did a food journal play a role? What did you learn by recording what you ate?

photo courtesy flickr user jamieanne

23 thoughts on “What I learned by keeping a food journal

  1. Tracking my food made me fatter because I was always thinking about food. Going low fat made me fatter because, well, it turned out that was exactly the wrong diet for my metabolism. Cutting out snacks also made me fatter, again, bad for my metabolism.

    What makes me thin: Listening to my hunger. Stopping eating when satiated. Eating at least 5 meals a day. And, because I have PCOS, eating things that are glycemically balanced. That means getting rid of most processed food and only eating whole grains. No sugar. Lots of fruit, some cheese, small squares of Green and Black chocolate, nuts, small amounts of whole fat products etc. Pounds just started coming off with no pain at the rate of one to two a week when I made the lifestyle change. And it wasn’t too difficult to keep up with (though free bad food at work after I allowed myself to cheat occasionally did put me in the upper end of the normal weight distribution.)

    What really makes me thin is going on metformin, which is an insulin sensitizing medication. I don’t like doing that though so only do it when trying to get pregnant or in the first trimester. Nursing is also amazing for my metabolism and I’d totally volunteer myself out as a wetnurse if we didn’t live where we do and instead live somewhere that was less sketchy.

    A lot of that is because I generally eat well but have problems with insulin resistance. However, people who are on the low-calorie diets (for science) find that they feel most comfortable when they eat low calorie foods that are high volume. They eat a lot of apples. Fruit and fiber are good for satiation at low caloric intake. (Not grapes so much, but things like apples.) I don’t think stopping eating before satiation is sustainable, but eating filling healthy foods when hungry and eating them slowly, allowing yourself to listen to your hunger, is something that you can keep up with on a regular basis. It’s just a matter of keeping the junk away.

    1. This is my situation as well. Tracking food and eating low fat just made me fatter. Switching to low-carb/Paleo made me lose weight effortlessly, without tracking or hunger. Interestingly, it made my body act as if I was on metformin – so I could no longer tolerate wine or dessert, which isn’t a bad thing either 🙂

      Unfortunately being pregnant has made me very protein-averse which I’m hoping will go away soon so I can get back to that eating pattern again – I felt AMAZING for the first time in years.

      1. I tried the Atkins diet once, but didn’t get very far. I like carbs too much. I realize there’s a difference between bad ones and good ones, and I try to focus on the good ones. I think for me, less of everything is the right way to go.

  2. Losing the weight after the third baby is harder isn’t it? The weight just melted off with my first two. I was a toothpick with huge boobs lol! But that third baby (and fourth and fifth etc) are different.

    Interrupted sleep definitely impacts weight loss. I’ve read that we have higher stress hormones in our blood when we lose sleep, leading to weight gain. Ditto for the other stressful things you mentioned.

    I don’t do “hungry”, because I have low blood sugar and I’ll get really sick if I reduce my calories too low.

    Someone on your other post mentioned living in France… I have the book French Women Don’t Get Fat and love the tips in it. French women don’t diet and they don’t do gyms or “exercise”. They walk a LOT, pay careful attention to food, eat high quality food mindfully, and keep food journals if they want to lose. The book has a lot of awesome tips.

    1. @Carrie – Hmm… perhaps this weight loss struggle is telling me to stop at 3! Actually, I know why this is taking longer. I gained more weight and I gained it earlier. I’d started this pregnancy in the high 120s not the low 120s, so that was affecting things too. I know I should be French in terms of paying more attention to food. Savor it, slow down, enjoy…

  3. 0.75 lb/weekl is pretty fast weight loss for someone who is 129. I used to weigh 125 consistently but, after twins and passing 35, find myself creeping toward 130 lb and struggling to lose the same 3 lb over and over. Hopefully your post motivates me to be more diligent about my eating. My goal is to maintain my weight until menopause, then to limit my gain to 10 lb.

    1. @Twin Mom- yes, I’m worried that these pounds will get comfortable on me. They’ve been there for a year, and 6 months post baby, so it’s time for the lease to be up.

      1. It may be age and breastfeeding more than time. I gained more weight with twins than with my singleton and it took more than twice as long to lose it. I’m not sure why; loss of muscle tone during the month in the hospital was probably part of it. I would have gained even more if not for that.

        Remember it’s a journey!

  4. Rather than keep a food journal, I write a food plan the night before. At times, I’ve followed that pretty strictly — if I wanted to eat something that wasn’t on the plan, I’d tell myself “I’ll plan that food for tomorrow.” Now, I’m a little looser, allowing substitutions that are roughly equivalent in nutrition and calories. But, most days, I just follow my plan — it’s the easiest thing.

    For me, it’s like planning a trip. Sure, I can occasionally take a detour to visit an interesting site advertised on a bill board, but if I want to get to my destination, I need to spend most of my time following the line that I drew on the map to get me there.

    By planning the night before, I make many fewer decisions about what I eat during the day. Having a plan saves time and money, too!

    1. @Joy – I think I’d do well with a planning system. I like to plan things because then I look forward to them and oh do I love my food. Knowing I’d be eating a good dinner, I could probably make myself wait for it.

  5. The only time I’ve kept a food journal was when I was looking for the source of mysterious headaches I was having. I never found it- but yoga fixed the headaches, so I suspect they were stress. I didn’t lose any weight from doing that.
    I need to come up with some sort of plan, though, because I’m a little bit over my healthy weight right now, and my current approach isn’t getting me back down to healthy weight.

    1. @Cloud- that was kind of my thinking. If what I’m doing isn’t working…time to try something else!

  6. I’m not trying to lose weight, but I do think the idea of a daily meal and (especially) snack routine is helpful for maintaining weight. In general, I have two snacks in the afternoon (combo of carbs/protein) and very rarely have anything late at night. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat something whenever, but there’s definitely no grazing throughout the day.

    I agree w/Joy that it’s what happens most of the time that counts and have found that my routine allows me to absorb all sorts of exceptions and extra treats (provided they remain exceptions) w/o too much difficulty.

  7. We as women have to also ask ourselves why do we spend so much time over 5 lbs… do we really care about it that much or is it a way to keep women down… 129 is very very impressive… I’m happy post kids at a higher weight than I would have thought when I was at my lowest ever weight .. but you want to find balance.. yes keep a food log if it helps but don’t make your whole life about being thinner b/c that is a symptom of a larger prob for women I think!

    1. I have a hormone problem that causes many women to be ~100 lb overweight. My endocrinologist encouraged me in my fight over the same 5 lb, because it’s easier to lose 5 lb than 100 lb. If it were only 5 lb over life, I don’t think any of us would put the effort in.

  8. My point was would a post for men have 16 comments about five pounds.. men are concerned in being pleased and having pleasurable experiences and women are concerned and held to a different standard of being pleasing… still…

    1. @Cara- tough call on this one. I really don’t think anyone except me cares about the last 5 (now 4!) pounds. I’m not exactly pursuing a modeling career, so I don’t think it’s society either. I just feel good at a certain weight and would like to stay close to that for optimal health and energy. It’s good to haul around less weight while running, for instance.

      1. Yes of course… it is important for healthy and to run and be in the world to be within a normal weight range… but it does feel as if it is a form of oppression our female and society’s female obsession with 125 lbs or less after kids… men don’t even gain weight for childbirth or nursing and they still don’t have this debate..

  9. I’ve been keeping a food tracker for the past 3 months, and I find it very helpful. I’ve lost almost 8 pounds, going from the mid/low 100s to the high 90s, which is a comfortable weight for my (lack of) height. My clothes fit much better now that I am back to my high school weight, but I do acknowledge that that last 5 pounds is vanity weight. Would it make much difference to my health if I weighed 100 pounds vs. 95 pounds? Probably not. Do I like the way I look and feel at the latter vs. the former? Yes. Is it worth it to me to maintain the lower weight and in return trade eating fried chicken twice a month instead of every week? Yes.

    1. @Well Heeled Blog – I think this is what I’m learning, to enjoy certain foods in much more moderation than I have in the past. One reason I started this last pregnancy heavier is that I’d developed bad habits while I was training for a marathon and nursing my previous baby. My sense of what a normal meal or snack was got totally warped. I can eat a lot, but I cannot eat an entire package of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered caramels every week and expect to be at my high school weight with a metabolism that’s a few decades older.

  10. Losing weight after kids gets harder and a food journal can be a tremendous help. After my 4th child it seem like the weight was stuck! Even though I thought I “ate great” my food journal uncovered my issue – sugar! I was absolutely overboard and it was with the subtle foods like energy bars, protein smoothies, and salad dressing. Now, I’m much more aware of the sugar traps and I’ve noticed a difference in my weight, especially my abs.

    1. @Valerie – yes, energy bars, granola bars, cereal all seem to have a lot of sugar. I love my granola, but I’m realizing it may not be as “healthy” as I’m telling myself…

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