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Keep Track of Your Food

Write eating patterns in a food journal to reveal diet-busters and poor nutrition.

Bob Condor

Special to Tribune Newspapers

November 15, 2009

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Starting a food journal might seem, well, fill in the blank: tedious, labor-intensive, more trouble than it's worth, maybe a touch obsessive. But Seattle-based nutritionist Minh-Hai Tran says one significant outcome makes a food journal the right move. A food journal is a chance to stop eating on autopilot or eating just to eat.

"I encourage my clients to look at their behavior from a neutral outside observer perspective (as they record meals and snacks in food journals)," she explained. "My approach involves a lot of curiosity - no judgment. This is very crucial for information gathering and self-learning. Everything translates to a learning experience."That even goes for eating a pint of ice cream after a party in which you ate enough that you can't remember everything for the journal.

"One suggestion I would make in this case is to take a few seconds to journal before the person reaches for the ice cream in order to gather more data about what is going on, such as thoughts and feelings," Tran said. "I'm not saying to journal instead of eating but to journal beforehand to encourage conscious eating. The idea is to avoid eating on autopilot."

Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's trainer and (surprise) a best-selling author, suggests that the obligation to fill out a food journal can work to your caloric/anti-junk food advantage. "If someone offers you cake at work," he said, "you are less likely to take a slice when you know you will have to write it down in your food journal for the day."

You Can Do It

A food journal is used by many nutritionists as a method for getting a jump-start on helping a client reach fitness goals. Typically, the requirement is to write down all foods and drinks consumed for three to five days, right down to the last bite. That is too daunting for the long run. Tran said keeping track of splurges (or writing a few lines before splurges) is more manageable and pays big dividends.

If you write down what you eat on outrageous days, you can figure out what is a splurge and what has become a regular eating pattern (Exhibit A might be whether you consider a large order of fries the occasional treat or a birthright). Sustain your journal by writing on days when the eating is more, let's say, interesting.

One note: Don't forget to write down all beverages and approximate the ounces. You might discover you don't drink much water or that those afternoon colas or sweetened ice teas add up.

What If You Slip?

Keeping a journal takes some discipline. If you fall behind on your writing, re-up your commitment in a simple but effective step: Write for a day or three about the times you are less hungry and more satisfied. Explore why. Did you eat breakfast? Maybe a healthy snack of an apple with peanut butter for dip left you not needing to devour the breadbasket at dinner.

For instance, in a recent study, Purdue University nutritionist Wayne W. Campbell found the typical American eats only 15 percent of the total recommended daily protein during breakfast.

He found that volunteer subjects reported that a high-protein breakfast of eggs and Canadian bacon can help you feel more satisfied and less hungry throughout the day than if you "saved" the protein for lunch or dinner. Egg and pork producers helped fund this study, so if you think eggs and turkey sausage or a whey protein smoothie might fill the same healthy purpose, you probably are right.

Another study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that overweight adults who ate two eggs for breakfast rather than a bagel were more able to lose weight. The egg/bagel breakfasts were equal in calories. Use your food journal to figure out whether your daytime meals are helping you eat fewer calories at night.

Best Of All

Tran says keeping a food journal is not about snitching on yourself.

"One overlooked personal health factor is the importance of taking the time to get as much pleasure as possible out of what we're eating," said Tran, who, fittingly, is co-founder of a tasty line of energy bars called Zing Bars. "Maximizing pleasure and decreasing guilt are important for healthy weight management. Americans ranked the lowest in (maximizing food pleasure and decreasing food guilt) in a study looking at people's relationship to food and their health. The study included the U.S., France, Japan and Belgium."