Most people think of weight loss as a formula: healthy food + exercise = weight loss. Why, then, is the scale still not budging even though you’re doing everything right? It’s probably because the weight loss industry doesn’t teach us the secret ingredient that’s vital for a healthy life and healthy body: our minds. We often overeat not because our body is demanding it, but because our brain is. Stress, powerful emotions and lack of sleep all lead us to dip our hand into the cookie jar or to order the burger instead of the salad. Simply put: being in tune with our mental state makes us more in tune with the rest of our body. But how exactly do you find out what’s going on up there to lose weight down below? Thankfully, there’s a super simple brain hack. It’s called a food journal, and it’s time you get writing.
In 2008, the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that among 1,700 people, those who journaled daily lost double the weight compared to non-journalers. And a 2012 study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discovered that, out of 439 women, those who kept a food journal lost about 13 percent of their starting body weight compared to the 8 percent of those who did not journal.
The power of the food journal is that it keeps you accountable and makes you more aware of your eating. You are less likely to grab that piece of chocolate cake if you know you have to write it down later and face the ultimate critic-you. Plus, you become more aware of the emotions tied to your food and the habits you’ve fallen into, like craving fatty snacks around 4 p.m. When you sit down and ask yourself the simple question “why” in your journal, you realize that 4 p.m. is peak stress time at work. The following day, you come prepared with a healthy snack to munch on at 4 p.m.; maybe you even do yoga before work to help prevent your stress.
Journaling is a scientifically proven weight loss tool, and it can also be used to track your step-by-step progress in fitness or your success at work. Whatever you use it for, there’s one downside to journaling: it’s hard. It can be burdensome to consistently write in a journal every day and difficult to face your emotions head on. But trust us: just one short journal session a day can help you keep your word when it comes to weight loss. Here are some tips you need to successfully put pen to paper and put your weight loss efforts on the fast track to success.
1. Keep your journal on your nightstand
Some people are creatures of habit. Others go where the wind takes them. But there’s one thing that everyone does every single day: sleep. Keeping your journal next to your bed is a great daily reminder to write down what you ate that day. Bedtime is also your least distracted, least hectic time of day, which means you can’t make the “I’m too busy right now” excuse and can instead reflect on your habits. (Oh, and before you hit the hay, whip up a healthy overnight oats recipe for the morning. You can proudly jot those down in your food journal tomorrow.)
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2. Or write as you go
If totaling up the day’s eats seems like an overwhelming task, try doing it step by step. Quickly writing down what you ate right after a meal or snack is a more manageable way of writing your food journal. Plus, writing it in the moment allows you to more accurately portray exactly what you ate and how you felt about it.
3. Go digital
These days, tons of apps are available to help you track your weight loss progress. They function the same way as a food journal, allowing you to document exactly what you ate, how much and when. A recent study out of Northwestern University found that those that tracked their eating on a mobile device were more likely to lose weight than those who did not. Not many of us carry a journal with us everywhere, but most of us have a smartphone glued to our pocket 24/7, making this the most convenient way to dive into food journaling.
4. Get the picture
A recent study out of a nutrition clinic found that those who take weekly pictures of themselves are more likely to lose weight than those who shy away from the lens. Try adding pictures of yourself to your diary or add them to your digital food log. They’ll serve as motivation and reward since you’ll literally be able to see the changes in your body.
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5. Be specific
This is probably the most important aspect of keeping an effective weight loss journal. It’s easy to say “I had a sandwich for lunch,” but if you want to get the most out of your journal, write down word for word what you ate that day. Focus on portion size, time of day, environment and how you felt before, during and after eating. This will give you insight into your eating patterns over time and can help you make small interventions for a big change in the long run. Don’t forget to list what you drank that day, too.
6. Get emotional
Part of being specific is being emotional. Don’t just write what you ate, but also include how it made you feel. If you notice that you reach for a bar of chocolate every time you fight with your husband because you feel sad and stressed, then perhaps next time you’ll be more likely to go for a run when things get tense. It’s not going to be a perfect science, but it will point you in the direction of healthy habits.
7. Be honest
You may feel guilty about the pizza you had today and you might not want to write about it, but that’s the point! Being totally honest in your writing allows you to notice your eating trends and pick up on your feelings around food so that you can take steps toward tangible change. A recent study from journal Appetite found that those who felt guilt around food were more likely to overeat and gain weight in the long run. Allowing yourself to fully address those feelings of guilt (or anxiety or sadness or whatever you’re feeling), could help you develop a better relationship with food over time.
8. Set a date
We’re proposing a new kind of date night: a date with you and your journal. Logging your food every day is great, but it won’t actually do anything until you sit down and face the truth. Try to meet once a week with your journal and reread everything you have written. Notice patterns, notice emotions around food, notice cravings. Try to find places where you can intervene to set yourself on track for weight loss success.