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Strong People

Track That Snack

A food journal helps keep you honest

Walk down the hallway at work and you confront a vending machine. Step outside and you come upon a fast food restaurant or coffee shop. Food is everywhere in today’s world, and we’re constantly forced to make decisions about it. But unless we keep a careful record of those decisions, we quickly lose track of what we were thinking and feeling when we decided what—and whether—to eat.

Consider a recent study published in Environment and Behavior. The participants—150 people between the ages of 19 and 71—were asked to estimate how many decisions about food they made in a day. Then they were asked a series of questions designed to gauge the accuracy of their answers—questions about not only what and how much they ate or drank for every meal and snack, but also when, where, and with whom. The researchers used the information to form their own estimate of how many food-related decisions the participants made in a typical day.

The disparity between the two estimates was eye-opening. While the participants guessed they made an average of 14 food decisions daily, the researchers put the tally at 226. In other words, every day we may be making more than 200 food-related decisions that we aren’t aware of. If we’re struggling with our weight, that translates into more than 200 extra opportunities to blow it.

How much you eat has much to do with what you eat with. An article in the Annual Review of Nutrition notes that more than 71 percent of our calories are consumed with “serving aids”—bowls, plates, glasses, and utensils. While we may not give them much thought, serving aids can play a huge role in our perceptions of quantity. Clearly, the amount of cereal in “a bowl” varies widely, depending on the size of the bowl. But even the shape of a serving aid can change our calorie intake. For example, people tend to underestimate the size of a cylindrical object like a drinking glass when it is short and wide. In one study, researchers asked teenagers to pour themselves a drink in both a short, wide glass and a tall, narrow glass. When they used the short glass, the teens poured and drank 88 percent more than when they used the tall glass.

You become much more aware of how these subtle environmental cues affect your consumption if you keep a food journal. Writing it all down helps you understand your food habits and susceptibilities. And that can make a real difference. A study published in Behavior Therapy shows that people who keep a food journal are more successful at losing weight than those who do not. Data from the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more, suggest that food journals are effective for weight maintenance, too.

The more information you track, the more you will learn about your relationship with food. Don’t just write down what you eat. Write down why you decided to eat—what was going through your head when you were offered that crème-filled donut and who was egging you on as you accepted it. Also write down what made you stop: Were you full? Feeling a little guilty?

Then make a point of looking back through your journal regularly. All of the information you’ve recorded will help you develop weight-control strategies. You may notice that you continue to nibble on your dinner even after you are full because you are watching television. You may want to eat with the set off.

Whatever you do, don’t stop writing (within reason—there’s no need to become neurotic about it). You can keep your journal in a notebook, on your computer, or even in your phone—anywhere that’s convenient. Maintain the journal habit and you’ll not only become more mindful of your food choices, you’ll develop a healthier relationship with food, period.

MIRIAM E. NELSON is director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts and an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She also holds an adjunct appointment at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Strong Women, Strong Backs (GP Putnam’s Sons) is the latest in her best-selling Strong Women book series.

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