Keeping a food diary can be one of the best ways to gauge how healthfully you’re actually eating. You’ll begin noticing patterns about how and when you eat, which can be helpful in identifying any healthy-eating pitfalls you might encounter—like those 3 p.m. cravings that send you straight to the snack cabinet. Tracking everything you eat may also help you manage your weight—and, of course, keep track of carbs. The most important thing to remember is to record everything—even those seemingly insignificant nibbles and snacks.
Here are a few quick tips about keeping on track with your food diary. And remember—like any habit, keeping a food diary gets easier with time.
Keep it handy. Take your food diary with you everywhere, so it’s always at the ready whenever an eating opportunity presents itself (say, that sliver of cake at a surprise office celebration). For convenience, you can also use a small notepad to write down what you eat, then enter the list in your diary later.
Write it right after you bite it. That way, you won’t forget anything, especially quantities. Don’t forget condiments, like that pat of butter on your green beans. Be sure to include those “incidental” nibbles that are notoriously easy to overlook—like that cube of cheese you ate while preparing dinner, or that mini candy bar from the jar on your co-worker’s desk.
Be specific. Record the type and amount of food in as much detail as possible, especially portion sizes: list “10 crackers,” rather than “a handful,” or “2 cups popcorn” rather than “small bowl.”
Record calories and other important nutrients. Look up the calorie value of the foods and drinks you’ve had today, making sure to adjust for the portion size. For example, if that portion of ham in your sandwich at lunch was larger than the 1-ounce-slice serving listed, make sure to adjust the calories, carbs (and other nutrients you’re recording) accordingly. If you can’t find a food you’ve eaten on the list, check food labels or other standard calorie-counting guides.
It’s better to add as you go, rather than waiting until later; that way you’ll have a running tally of what you’ve eaten. But if you don’t have time to do the math each time, don’t sweat it. Do the best you can, and add up the numbers at the end of the day.
Do I Have to Write Everything Down?
There’s no denying that keeping a food diary takes time, especially in the beginning as you learn the ropes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the idea of a food diary, you’re probably someone who will benefit the most from this kind of approach. It might be the first time that you’ve stepped back and really paid attention to your daily eating behavior, and you might be amazed at what it shows you about yourself.
Keep in mind that like all habits, recording in your food diary will get easier over time, as it becomes instinctive. You’ll notice you eat many of the same foods from day to day, so you won’t have to look up their calories every time. (Your previous days’ diary entries will serve as a handy reference for calorie and carb counts too.) You’ll quickly memorize the calorie and carb counts in your staples—about 70 calories and 13 g carbs in half an English muffin, 140 and 26 if you eat the whole thing, about 35 calories more if you spread on a pat of butter.