Accountability is a factor in changing any habit, including eating habits. One great way to keep oneself accountable is keeping a food journal. It’s inexpensive and studies show that it only takes about 15 minutes per day.
According to a new study, people trying to lose weight who entered their food intake in an online program twice per day were more likely to lose weight than weight loss patients who journaled less frequently. At six months of follow-up, the patients who lost 5% or more of their body weight were recording their food intake 2.4 times per day, and those who lost 10% of their baseline weight recorded their food intake an average of 2.7 times per day. Participants who lost less weight were recording their intake only 1.6-1.7 times per day.[i]
This is not the first study that has shown that keeping a food journal increases the chance of success for those who are trying to lose weight. One study showed that participants lost more weight during the weeks they most consistently tracked food intake vs the weeks during which they were the least consistent.[ii] Another study showed that using a paper diary was more effective than an electronic one, and that weight loss was highly correlated with the number of entries made.[iii]
Despite this, studies show that journaling tends to decrease over time, and in fact, by 6 months, 34.5% of the participants in the new study referenced above, had completely stopped journaling.
There can be many reasons for this, including decreased motivation. Another factor is the tediousness of many programs, which require that people enter specific foods, portion sizes, and other information that is difficult to tabulate and track, particularly when eating out or when eating dishes with many ingredients. We have recommended against this type of journaling for a long time, and research shows we are right about this ¨C the detail is less important than the frequency of making entries.[iv] A study looking at the effect of keeping food journals on sustained weight loss arrived at the same conclusion ¨C recording details about food intake had no impact, while high-frequency and high consistency of entries did.[v]
Consistency is required in order to meet any goal, from learning to play the piano or a foreign language to losing weight. So it is not surprising that in the case of journaling, more is better, and consistency makes a difference too. According to results from the Diabetes Prevention Program, for every journal submitted during the first 16 weeks of the program, the chance of meeting the goal of 7% weight loss increased, translating to a 32% better chance of meeting the goal with just one month of journaling. An added benefit was that those who consistently journaled were more likely to meet their objectives for physical activity too.[vi]
I think most overweight people would want to know that one simple task that takes only 15 minutes per day could make such a difference in their outcomes. Additionally, while much of the research on journaling has been conducted on participants in weight loss programs, the practice is most likely beneficial for people who are trying to change diet and lifestyle habits for other reasons too. While more emphasis on support systems for reinforcing consistency is necessary for people to be successful in changing their eating and exercise habits, self-accountability through journaling is an under-utilized tool that should be more widely encouraged.
[i] Harvey J, Krukowski R, Priest J, West D. Ħ°Log Often, Lose More: Electronic Dietary seld-Monitoring for Weight Loss.Ħħ Obesity 2019 Feb;27(3)
[ii] Boutelle KN, Kirschenbaum DS. Further support for consistent self-monitoring as a vital component of successful weight control Obes Res 1998 May;6(3):219-224
[iii] Burke LE, Sereika SM, Music E, Warziski M, Styn MA, Stone A. Using instrumented paper diaries to document selfİ\monitoring patterns in weight loss.Ħħ Contemp Clin Trials 2008 Mar;29(2):182İ\ 193.
[iv] Helsel DL, Jakicic JM, Otto AD. Ħ°Comparison of techniques for selfİ\monitoring eating and exercise behaviors on weight loss in a correspondenceİ\based intervention J Am Diet Assoc 2007 Oct;107(10):1807-1810.
[v] Peterson ND, Middleton KR, Nackers LM, Medina KE, Milsom VA, Perri MG. Ħ°Dietary selfİ\monitoring and long-term success with weight management Obesity (Silver Spring) 2014 Sep;22(9):1962İ\1967.
[vi] Wing RR, Hamman RF, Bray GA et al. Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group. Achieving weight and activity goals among Diabetes Prevention Program lifestyle participants. Obes Res 2004 Sep;12(9):1426İ\1434.