Keeping a food log is one of the most unappealing, aversive weight loss tools. If I had to pick just one method I thought was most important for successful weight loss and maintenance, it would be keeping an accurate food log. Unfortunately, it’s also the one thing people are least likely to try. I get asked about my weight loss journey all the time, and people who otherwise claim “I’ll do ANYTHING” stop short of this. They just won’t do it. It’s even worse than trying to get people to calculate how much money they should save for retirement. Don’t feel pressured. Most people are more likely to cancel their cable TV subscriptions or clean out their storage units than they are to attempt this. This post is purely for educational purposes.
The only reason I started recording my food intake was that it was still January, and I had made a vow to Do the Obvious all year. I had committed to make a sincere effort to do anything that was widely regarded as “the correct way.” As a Questioner, this was challenging, because I was asking myself to accept received wisdom at face value. I tried to see it as a scientific experiment. I had read that insight follows experience, and it resonated with me. We automatically reject ideas that don’t fit our mindset, even though the information may be the only thing that will resolve our problems! I believed that I only ate health food and that there was nothing wrong with the way I ate. I was struggling to lose the 17 pounds I had gained in the previous year, though, and I accepted that perhaps some of my beliefs were incorrect. When a friend suggested that I start a food log, I was offended and annoyed. Ah, but that was my ego talking. I started the food log right then and there, loathsome as it was. My friend was right.
After three months of frustration, and a few tears, I had dropped the excess weight. I had to replace 80% of my wardrobe. I’ve been a size zero for the last year and a half. (This is somewhat hateful to me because it’s very challenging to find clothes in this size). I still keep my food log. My original motivation has shifted from solving my mysterious weight gain, to eliminating my night terrors, to monitoring my micronutrient intake. I discovered that, like 98% of Americans, my diet was low in potassium. I’m still learning how to find potassium-rich foods away from home. This may sound silly or boring, but to me it’s an interesting challenge. The other advantage is that I have this increasingly valuable resource if it’s ever necessary to share with a medical team.
How does it work?
People panic over the idea of keeping a food log. One common objection is that they can’t write down the information, because they don’t have a smartphone, they can’t carry paper and pen with them, and/or they just find the idea so repugnant that even trying it for three days would make their heads explode. Another common objection is to the atrocious, intolerable idea of weighing or measuring portions. Yet another is that it’s too hard to estimate what’s in the food when it’s either from a restaurant or it’s cooked by someone else. These are all perfectly valid concerns, but they are reflective of a paradigm that will never result in weight loss and will most likely continue to result in weight gain. Basically, if you eat the Standard American Diet and follow the Standard American Lifestyle, you will be overweight, especially if you’re male. Move to Iceland or Japan and it’ll work itself out, but if you do what your friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens do here in the US, you’re hosed.
I generally do log my meals as I eat them, but I don’t have to, because I eat the same few things for breakfast, lunch, and snacks every day. I always have eaten this way, because I like what I like. The trick during my three-month diet was to figure out what portion of each meal option I could eat on a daily basis and maintain my goal. (It was about 30% less than I had been eating). The other element of predictability is that all my kitchen things are modular. All my plates, bowls, glasses, and food storage containers match, and I only have one ladle. I used a measuring cup and measured the volume of the ladle, the bowl, the glass, and the containers – once. I know if I’m eating soup that it’s two cups. I know if I’m scooping anything onto a plate that it’s one cup per scoop. That’s portion control. I don’t have to make decisions or calculate or put any thought or effort into this, because I already spent a couple of minutes on it in January 2014. When I’m eating away from home, I can use my fist as a visual size reference. (One of my fist’s many super powers).
But… what do I do about food that’s off plan?? What if someone makes me a cake with my name written on it in frosting?? *shrug* Eat it. I eat donuts and pancakes and cake and pie and brownies and cookies and all that stuff. I just don’t eat them nearly as often. The main reason for that is that meeting the recommended daily allowance of micronutrients basically eliminates food cravings. I’ve found that eating a healthier diet also means higher-quality sleep, more energy, clearer skin, and the disappearance of the dark circles I had under my eyes for decades.
This is how I eat. Breakfast: Packet oatmeal with dried blueberries and an added 2 tablespoons of raisins. (I don’t really like raisins all that much, but they’re high in potassium, they’re cheap and easy to find, and they’re not actively gross to me). Lunch: veggie sausage and a big baked potato, which is 1/3 my daily potassium requirement and also deeply satisfying. Snack: usually a Builder Bar and a piece of fruit. If my weigh-in was up, I just eat the fruit. On vacation I skip the snack, leaving about 300 calories of leeway for the day. Dinner: the variable. We usually eat about 2-4 cups per person of kale, chard, collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, or bok choy as part of the meal, and about once a week we have a dinner salad. Restaurants: after the first six months or so of keeping the food log, I have developed a pretty good sense of what I can order in particular cuisines. I don’t usually order rice, bread, or pasta. Sometimes we split an entrée and/or dessert. We tend to walk a minimum of five miles a day on vacation, and that helps, but not nearly as much as one would hope!
The other thing I found was that I was only drinking about ¼ the appropriate amount of water. It took weeks to train myself to be able to drink the right amount and at the right times of day. My weight loss had plateaued, but when my water consumption was on target, it fell right off. This is really important for athletic performance and sleep quality. It also makes it basically impossible to drink calories, because your kidneys are like, “I can’t even.” Sweet drinks don’t satisfy hunger; all they do is cause weight gain and sugar cravings and dental problems and diabetes. When I think about all the years I drank soda, I want to beat my head on the wall. For many people, cutting soda (or booze) would be the only step they needed to take to gradually level out at a healthy weight.
So that’s it. I eat a predictable quantity of food and drink predictable amounts of water at predictable times of day. There is still art and passion and music and color in my life! Rather than feeling stressed and oppressed by strict rules, I feel it more as a comfortable structure. Like the Dewey Decimal System. It’s one more thing I no longer have to worry about. I also feel like my body got a couple of massive system upgrades.
Here is the most boring video of all time. I waited until the end of the day to log all my meals, and had my husband record me talking to myself while I typed it in. We timed it. At two minutes a day, it takes less time than flossing and brushing my teeth each day.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.