The Write Diet - that is, recording everything you eat each day in a food diary - is not only a successful diet strategy but it can help you lose twice as much weight as you would if you did everything right except write it down.
That was the conclusion of a nationwide study of 1,685 overweight and obese people who spent six months in 2008 following a diet regimen that included 30 minutes of exercise a day and a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Writing down everything they ate and how much they exercised was recommended but not mandatory. But for those who did, the payoff was big - they lost twice as much weight!
Overall, two-thirds of the dieters lost an average of nine pounds but those who faithfully used a food journal each day lost an average of 20 pounds. The study, coordinated by Kaiser Permanente Care Management Institute's Weight Management Initiative, made news and created commentary around the world for months.
This news came as no surprise to me. University-based weight-loss experts and a handful of smaller research studies also have verified that writing down the food and calories you eat each day is a winning diet strategy. But I didn't realize how easily it can work until two years ago when I visited a friend in Brooklyn who I hadn't seen in a year. I was amazed at how thin she had gotten in the year since I last saw her. She looked as if she had lost 50 pounds. "Actually, I lost 46 pounds," she told me, "and I'm aiming for 60."
"How did you do it?" I asked.
"I did nothing different than I did on any of my other diets, except I wrote down every single thing that I ate along with its calories. When I hit 1,800 calories I just stopped eating for the day. You'd be amazed what a difference there is between a real serving and what you think is a serving!"
Try it, she suggested. And I did. On Jan. 1 two years ago I started writing down what I ate, even if I had what career dieters consider a "bad eating day." Six months later I shed the 18 pounds I had been trying to diet away for years.
Why It Works So Well
Mindless eating is a major reason why so many people struggle with weight loss, explained the Kaiser researchers. Reaching into the candy dish on someone's desk, taking a cheese sample at the supermarket, finishing your kids' chicken fingers, and being unrealistic about portion size add up to a lot of calories that are easily forgotten in a day.
Writing down every morsel you put in your mouth and recording the calories make you cognizant of what you are eating. When you know you must write it down and look up the calories, you're less likely to grab a handful of chips or sneak a candy bar that is more the result of habit than hunger.
"Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice," said Keith Bachman, M.D., a weight management initiative member. "It's the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior."
Food Journaling Made Easy
Keeping track of your daily food intake needn't be difficult or costly. There are several inexpensive diet journals on the market but it isn't necessary to be this formal. You can use a notebook or keep track on your computer. There are Websites that exist just for this purpose. Some charge but there are free ones from which to choose.
You also need an easy way to look up calories. Again, several pocket-size calorie books exist. Calorie counters are also plentiful online.
Looking up calories for everything you eat creates an extra step in your day (which in itself is a deterrent to eat), but people tend to eat the same foods over and over again, so you'll end up recalling a lot from memory. The National Heart, Blood Institute of Health at the National Institutes of Health, which funded the food diary study, offers a free food diary and menu planner that automatically calculates calories for you.
You can benefit from purchasing a small scale to weigh your portions. Again, it won't take you long to sense what constitutes 3 ounces of meat or half a cup of vegetables.
Last, but certainly not least, make sure to record your daily exercise. Kaiser's Weight Management Initiative recommends 30 minutes a day of exercise at moderate intensity.
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