Keeping a food journal is a tried-and-true weight-loss strategy. By logging everything you eat and drink, you learn more about healthy eating and are better able to create a calorie deficit (slightly less calories in than out) to shed pounds.
Of course, a food journal only works if you stick with it. One of the most common barriers to sticking with a food diary is how time-consuming and tedious it can be. In the beginning, it can feel like a chore, especially if you have to record complex recipes or restaurant meals, guesstimate portion sizes, or find the right brand or type of food from a long list of options.
However, research shows logging meals, drinks and snacks only takes about 15 minutes out of your day once you’ve gotten used to it. “Time-saving is so important when it comes to keeping a food journal because, for many people, if it isn’t convenient, you’re less likely to keep up with it,” says Sandy Younan Brikho, RD.
To make food journaling a truly sustainable habit, speed up the process with these seven time-saving tips:
Planning meals ahead of time — even if only day by day — can simplify food logging by making your intake more predictable (here’s a simple template to get you started). “Track your entire day at one time and only go in and edit items as needed,” suggests Leah Forristall, RD. While this approach might take some getting used to, recording all of your meals and snacks before you eat them could make it easier to stay on track since it’s all laid out for you already.
“One time-saving feature I can’t live without is saving recipes and meals,” says Brikho. If you frequently find yourself logging 10–20 ingredients for a single meal, you can save the recipe in an app like MyFitnessPal once, and you’re set for life. For go-to meals you love to eat, it’s worth the initial time investment.
Portion sizes are another common stumbling block when it comes to food logging. After all, it’s extremely difficult to eyeball the weight of food in grams, ounces, or pounds — and your eyes are often bigger than your stomach, says Aderet Dana Hoch, RD. One fix is to buy a food scale, which can quickly measure the weight of multiple food items. “They even make scales that you can link to your phone and the information will upload for you,” she says.
“After logging certain items so many times, you’ll begin to memorize what a 3 ounce or 1/2-cup portion of something looks like,” says Forristall. Once you get to this point, visual guides (such as the palm of your hand being 3 ounces of chicken breast) can help when you’re short on time. Compared to food scales or measuring cups and spoons, visuals are the least accurate method, but can also be the most sustainable — so opt for the method that suits you best, she suggests.
Another way to make food logging easier on yourself is to log one food for others that have the equivalent amount of calories or macronutrients (the balance of carbs, protein and fat), says Hoch. Originally created by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the exchange list shares vegetables, fruits, dairy products, lean proteins, starches, fats and more with similar or equivalent calorie counts.
Here are a few examples that could come in handy:
- 1/2 cup (75g) of cooked non-starchy vegetables like carrots or zucchini = 1 cup (30g) of leafy greens
- 1 cup of fat-free milk = 3/4 cup (184g) of nonfat yogurt
- 1 ounce of skinless turkey or chicken breast = 1 ounce of fish fillet, canned tuna or shellfish
- 1 cup (150g) of fresh berries or melon cubes = 1 small apple, banana or orange
A surprisingly big time zap is having to scroll through a gazillion different listings to find the specific brand and type of protein bar, bread or crackers you eat. The fix: “MyFitnessPal has a feature that allows you to scan food items,” says Forristall. All you have to do is scan the barcode and then make sure the nutrition information matches, she explains. If it’s not in the database, you can add it yourself. After that, you can easily find the new entry in your My Foods list.
“Meal scanning is one of the most popular features on MyFitnessPal Premium that my clients absolutely love,” says Brikho. “You don’t have to enter a bunch of different foods in, worry about it being the right food product or spend time searching for the right one.” Simply hold your phone above your plate for a few seconds, and voilà! The app logs your meal for you.
Although food journaling can be time-consuming at first, with a little planning, practice and the right app, you can streamline the process and stay on track to reach your health goals.
However, “when eating starts to feel like a chore because of your food journal or you’re no longer enjoying food, that’s a sign of journaling fatigue or burnout,” notes Hoch. In this case, it’s perfectly OK to take a break and use other weight-loss strategies like intuitive eating (listening to your natural hunger cues) or the plate method (filling half of your plate with non-starchy veggies and the one quarter each with starches and protein).
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