July 07, 2008


By Julie Upton, RD
When someone comes to me wanting advice on how to lose weight, one of the first things I tell them is to write down everything they eat and drink for three consecutive weekdays and one day on the weekend. New research supports what I've seen hold true in client after client: Food journals can accelerate weight loss.

In a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore., found that keeping a daily diary doubled weight lost among overweight men and women with cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure and/or elevated cholesterol).

Diet, food diary, and support groups
Nearly 1,700 patients were enrolled in the study and were put on a heart-healthy D.A.S.H. (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) regimen, which is rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and potassium, and low in sodium. (Incidentally, this is the same diet that my sister followed to lose weight and reduce her blood pressure.)

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In addition, subjects attended weekly group sessions and exercised at moderate intensity levels for at least 30 minutes a day. They were also instructed to keep diet and exercise journals. Individuals who did not record what they ate lost about 9 pounds, whereas those who kept daily diaries lost up to 18 pounds in five months. The average weight lost for the entire group was 13 pounds.

"The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost," says lead researcher Jack Hollis, PhD. "Simply writing down what you eat encourages eating less."

As one of the largest and longest-running weight-loss-maintenance trials ever conducted, this study gives support to a practice that we dietitians have been using for years. It's also one of the few studies to recruit a large percentage (44%) of African Americans as participants. African Americans have a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, conditions that are aggravated by being overweight. In this study, the majority of African American participants lost at least nine pounds, a higher number than in previous studies.

Next page: The write way to lose

The write way to lose
Food journals can be written in notebooks or on Post-its, or you can go high-tech and use an online program that offers lots of bells and whistles to keep you motivated. Many of my clients prefer recording their problem meals or snacks (i.e., record all dinners and every between-meal bite) and other clients prefer to have checklists each day for their fruit and veggie goals, daily glasses of water, or 30 minutes of exercise.

I also suggest that you record the time when you eat, and how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 10 before and after eating. This helps you get a better understanding of your cravings and food habits, and figure out whether you're really eating when (and why) you should.

Overall, food journals serve two purposes. First, only those who really want to lose weight will actually use them regularly, so it automatically separates those with a commitment to getting healthier from those without the drive. Secondly, it helps put the brakes on mindless munching and makes us think before we eat or drink.

The Kaiser Permanente researchers set forth these guidelines for weight loss, based on their study conclusions:

  • Keep daily records of food and beverages consumed and minutes exercised.
  • Eat about 500 fewer calories each day.
  • Follow the D.A.S.H. guidelines.
  • Exercise a total of 180 minutes each week (e.g., 30 minutes for six days per week).
  • Women: Have no more than one drink per day.
  • Men: Have no more than two drinks per day

By Julie Upton, RD

(PHOTO: CORBIS)

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