We put so much time and effort into losing weight.
When I say losing weight, I mean losing weight and keeping it off. Let’s face it, it’s easy to lose weight. We’ve all done it. It’s not, however, as easy to maintain that weight and prevent the pounds from slowly piling back on.
I’m still on my journey to lose weight and become as healthy as I can (see my post about my mission to lose 40 lbs by July 1, 2022), but I am 25 lbs lighter than I was a year ago. 🙂
In February, 2021, I was 195 lbs, and today I’m 169 lbs (I have about 30 lbs left to meet my 40-lb weight loss goal by July 1, 2022). In the last year, my weight has been up and down (the highest was 182, and the lowest was 162).
Based on my years of weight gain and weight loss, I can say, without a doubt, that the number one factor that determines if you lose weight or not is the FOOD. Other factors can play a role, but don’t let those other aspects become your focus because they don’t have as much impact as the food you eat. Put your energy into the area that matters the most. The FOOD.
It’s heart-breaking to think about how our efforts to lose weight are derailed by eating food we think is healthy or low in calories, or by treating ourselves periodically to indulgent foods, thinking that doing so once in a while is ok.
In this post I’d like to share how tracking your food can help you lose weight.
What is food tracking?
When you track your food, you’re recording all the food and beverages you consume each day.
You do NOT need to measure or record the calories of your food, but you should estimate the amount of food you’re eating. For example: 1 cup mashed potatoes, 2 small grilled chicken breasts with the skin, teaspoon of mayo, handful of nuts, etc.
Remember, you need just an estimate. You do NOT need to be exact.
When you look at your plate, you know the difference between 1 cup of pasta and 4 cups of pasta, right? Just do your best. If you want to measure your food precisely, it will become a pain in the butt, and then you’re more likely to give up on tracking your food.
You might think that keeping a record of everything you eat sounds like a lot of work, but if you think about the work you’ve been willing to put into losing weight in the past, you’re obviously willing to do some work to achieve the success you want. Give food tracking a chance. You can do this, and it won’t take forever.
Where should I track my food?
Track your food in whatever location works best for you. You can buy printable food trackers, you can make your own, or you can just record what you eat/drink under each date in a notebook or digital location. If using a notes app on your phone is easiest, do that. If you prefer to write it out on paper, do that.
If you want a digital tracker where you can add photos, I made one for you here: Google Doc, 7-Day Food Tracker.
Here are a couple of free, printable food trackers from the CDC and WebMD (click on the image to go to their sites):
A food diary app can work too, but I’ve never used one for the purpose of analyzing eating patterns for a chunk of time. Read through this post before you decide which method of tracking your food might be best for you. The goal is to be able to look back on your eating patterns over time. If an app lets you do that easily, then go for it.
The key for learning from your food tracking experience is to record your food and beverage intake in one location, so you can easily review it when the food tracking period is over. It’s fine to record your food in more than one place throughout your day (voice memo, post it note, app, phone, notebook, etc.), but at the end of each day (try to NOT leave it till the next day) make sure the day’s record is accurate and in one place.
I like using an ongoing Google Doc, because I can add photos next to my food record and easily scroll from one day to the next. Using photos can make the process simpler, and you can look at the photo later in the day to remember what and how much you ate. You can also record your food in a voice memo during the day, and then listen to it later and add it to your tracker.
Check out how I record my food with photos on my 2 month update on my mission to lose 40 lbs.
For how long should I track my food?
Track your food intake for at least 1 week, preferably 2. If you can do it for longer, great, because then you’ll gain more insights into your eating habits. Try a 21 or 30 day tracking period if you can stick with it.
I’ve been tracking my food since January 5, 2022, and I have learned a LOT about my eating patterns and precisely what contributes to weight gain and not losing weight.
You can see all my food records in the following posts:
Why should I track my food intake?
For many of us, we think we eat pretty healthy, and we think that moderation of indulgent foods and beverages are ok once in a while. By tracking your food daily, you’ll have a clearer picture of how often you indulge, and you’ll have an opportunity to look more closely at the food you eat.
Tracking your food will give you data to analyze later. It will tell you:
- The kind of food you’re eating
- How often you are eating
- How often you indulge
- How much food you’re really eating, overall
- and more…
When monitoring what you eat, you can record other information about your eating patterns as well (see Food Tracking Customizations, later in this post).
Here’s an example of how a food tracker helps you see the real picture of what you’re eating and how certain foods or eating patterns can be halting your weight loss.
Example of Food Tracking Insights: Melissa
Melissa looked forward to the salads she ate every night for dinner and felt good about herself for choosing such a healthy option. She loaded it with greens, vegetables and sometimes threw in beans, nuts, seeds or fruit. Melissa ate a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal with frozen fruit, and for lunch she usually had a sandwich with grilled chicken, tomatoes and lettuce. She made sure each meal was filling and didn’t snack in between meals.
When you look at what Melissa consumed on an average day, it doesn’t look like much. However, when you examine all the food she tracked, there is one glaring issue.
Melissa loved her dressings and sauces/spreads. She loaded her big evening salad with creamy dressings (Caesar, creamy cucumber or ranch). She always thought it was ok to add richer dressings because of how many veggies she was eating. In her sandwiches, she always lathered on the mayonnaise.
When you consider how many calories are in fatty, creamy dressings and spreads, it’s no surprise to see how Melissa was sabotaging her own efforts to lose weight (although she had no idea).
1 tablespoon of a creamy dressing is between 50 and 100 calories. Most people use at least 4 tablespoons of a creamy dressing (have you seen how small a tablespoon is?). Melissa’s large salads had about 8 tablespoons of creamy dressing, so every day, she was adding 400 to 800 calories to her nutritious salads. When you look at the mayonnaise on her sandwich at lunch, she used about 2 tablespoons, which comes to almost 200 calories.
In total, Melissa was quietly and innocently adding 600 to 1000 calories to her day just in dressings and sauces. If she did that 5 days a week, she was adding on 3000 to 5000 extra calories per week (approx. 3500 calories = 1 lb fat). Since she was sedentary for most of her days working in an office, she was very unlikely to lose weight, and she was probably going to gain weight.
If Melissa really wants to lose weight, she will have to change her eating habits. Some options for her are:
- Good: Use a salad dressing with at least half the calories. Use half the mayo on her sandwiches.
- Better: Make her own dressing where she can control the oil added, thereby greatly reducing the calories (there are 120 calories in 1 tablespoon of oil). Use a low-fat mayo on her sandwiches.
- Best: Make her own oil-free dressing for her salads. There are tons of ways to do this and ensure it’s tasty too. At first, the dressings might feel like they’re lacking something, but her taste buds will adapt in a few days. The secret to an oil-free dressing is flavor. On her sandwiches, she can use mustard or other spreads that have little, if any fat.
If Melissa chooses the best option and goes for a homemade, oil-free dressing on her salads, and mustard on her sandwiches, and changes nothing else in her diet, she’s likely to lose 1 to 1.5 lbs a week . That translates into 4-6 lbs in a month.
Without tracking her food, and looking closely at what she was eating, Melissa could not have seen the extent to which her dressings and sauces were affecting her waistline.
Food Tracking Must-haves and Customizations
- Be 100% honest with yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?
- Trust in the process.
- Keep it simple. If you have a stir-fry with 4 different vegetables, you can just record 1 cup of cooked veggies. You don’t need to list all the veggies.
- Try not to overestimate or underestimate the amount of food you eat. If you have a big bowl of pasta, you shouldn’t be writing down 1 cup of cooked pasta. If you eat a whole row of cookies from a cookie box, be brave, and write it down. Don’t feel bad; all you’re doing is gathering data, like a scientist. Leave out the self-criticism. If you eat three pieces of broccoli, don’t write 1 cup of broccoli; be honest, and write ⅓ cup or just three pieces.
- Record all the food you eat. If you grab a quick brownie from the lunch room, jot it in your phone somewhere you can look at later. Sometimes it can be hard to remember those small things at the end of the day. Snacking and grazing are two ways we sabotage our weight loss. If you put oil in your frying pan before you stir fry some veggies, be sure to include that oil in your food tracker. Whether you keep track of your food and beverages on your phone, or write them down in a notebook, be sure to record everything. Remember, you’re not doing this forever, just for a temporary period of your life.
- If you overate any meal or snack, and felt stuffed or bloated afterwards, note that in your tracker too.
You’re tracking your food for you, not for anyone else, so you want this experience to work for you. Review some of the following ways you can personalize your food tracker to work for you. All are optional.
- Record the time of day you eat/drink. You may gain some insights. For example, if you finish a meal or rich snack at 8:30 pm, which is only 2 hours before bed, that can inhibit weight loss. Another example is when you notice that on some days you overate your dinner, and discover that on those occasions, you finished your lunch 6 hours earlier. No wonder you were ravenous. Recording when you eat/drink gives you more data to consider later.
- Record any strong emotions you might be feeling right before you eat. If you sit and eat your lunch after a stressful meeting, make a note of that. If you come home irritated by traffic or work demands, note that feeling when you reach for a glass of wine or a bowl of chips. If you aren’t feeling any strong emotion, you can leave out how you’re feeling. If you do choose to track your emotions, listen carefully to your body as you’re about to eat/drink.
- You can also record where you eat. You might discover that you’re eating a lot of unnecessary food in your car, or at work during your break. You can discover ways to modify your eating patterns for greater weight-loss success.
- Record your weight each day. Doing so will give you more information, especially if you do a longer tracking period, like 21 or 30 days.
- If you do any form of exercise, add that to your tracker too. Walking 2 km or walking for 30 minutes, for example.
- If you’re comfortable with tracking your food with an accountability partner you can be honest with, it will help you keep going when you don’t feel like recording what you ate. Find someone who will do it with you, and at the end of each day, or every couple of days, send each other an email or photo showing what you ate and drank.
Now that you’ve learned what food tracking is, how you can do it and why it can be an important tool in helping you lose weight….are you ready to try it?
I hope you’ll give it a chance. My food tracking has taught me a lot.
After you track your food for 1-2 weeks, be sure to go to the next stage of food tracking, which is to do a check-in/analysis of all you ate and drank. This is the important stage when you will have some aha moments that will help you make more progress with your weight loss.
Once you have your food tracking data for at least 1-2 weeks, you can turn on your detective skills and put your eating habits under a microscope. You’re likely to discover how food might be sabotaging your efforts to lose weight.
Before I go… as I said earlier in this post, food is not the only contributor to our inability to lose weight, but I believe it is the factor with the most impact, aside from our mindset or LifeLens.
I urge you to give it your close attention.
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