It’s time to talk about record keeping. Journaling. Whatever you want to call it, it’s writing down everything you eat. Record keeping sucks. It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous, it doesn’t come naturally, so let’s just get that out of the way and go straight to why I do it anyway. Record keeping is the single most powerful tool in my weight management arsenal.
A lot of times weight loss gurus will tell you that the reason it’s useful is because you are more likely to limit what you eat if you write it all down. That’s not where I’m coming from on this. It’s valuable because it’s data, and that is the most valuable thing I have over time. Because the more data I keep, the more easily I am able to detect patterns and determine what is effective for me and what is not.
I’ve been keeping records since 2003. I recently reviewed them and found that, by simply scanning through my weekly totals over time, I now know exactly what I am doing when I am getting the results I want. I can also see what I am doing when I think I am working my program but NOT getting the results I want. My records consist of several behavioral data points regarding consumption of foods and their caloric values, servings of fruits and veggies, calories burned through physical activity and weight change for the week. Because I have so much data, I can see trends over time and how they relate to my weekly weight.
I write down everything I eat, every day, and its caloric value. I do this whether I am trying to lose weight or simply maintain my weight. The reason I am so militant about keeping my records is so that I am never surprised. If I’m keeping good records, I am never surprised at the number I see on the scale in the morning. Some days I am disappointed, or frustrated, but I am hardly ever surprised. So, let me tell you a little bit about what that looks like.
First of all, my records don’t have to be fancy, they don’t even have to be legible to anyone but me. They can be electronic, or if you’re a Luddite like me they can be written. I keep a little book in my purse – some good online resources for journaling are FitDay and SparkPeople. (Edited to add: Or what I now, as of 2015 use: MyFitnessPal.) As I progress through the day I write down each food I eat and its calorie value. I don’t need to put the amount of the food I ate because I know that when I’m estimating the calories. On the right, away from the food, I write down calories burned through exercise, so I end up having a plus and minus column.
I use some default values to make things easy. For example, Fruit, 1 piece (or a cup) is 75 calories, (bananas count as two servings, so 150 calories). Veggies, 1 cup is 50 calories. A fruit or veggie gets a star to the left of the entry. For example, yesterday looks like this:
I ‘m using pretty little notepads right now, but post-its work fine too. Sometimes I use blank books, if they’re small enough to fit in my purse.
So, what’s the star about? I hear you ask.
At the end of the day I count up the stars to determine how many servings of fruits and veggies I had in the day. Why? Because I aim to have 7-10 servings of fruits and veggies every day. Usually I come in around 7 or 8. I don’t count veggies that have been heavily processed or cooked with high-calorie methods, for example, if I ate a deep fried cheesy spinach casserole, I wouldn’t count that as a veggie because the deep frying and the cheese would add enough calories to eliminate any good the spinach might be doing. The point of the fruits and veggies for me is to fill me up without a lot of calories. Veggies that are drenched in cheese sauce do not conform to that specification.
Ok, so on a good day I consume about 1500 calories, and I burn about 400-600 in exercise. That’s a deficit day. I always aim to have a deficit day, because I don’t have to try to have a high calorie day, those seem to find me on their own. If I plan to have a deficit day every chance I get, then I can be a little more lax on the weekends when things don’t always run according to plan. On a bad day, I consume a lot more – up to 3000 calories in a day is easy, I can consume that much just by eating out at the wrong kind of restaurant and having drinks and dessert with dinner. Even if I did have a horrendous day and consumed way more calories than I should have, I still write it down. I don’t want to be surprised. I never want to get on the scale and go, “What happened?!! I gained 14 pounds last month! Where’d that come from??”
At the end of the day my goal is to balance my caloric equation based on my BMR, and at the end of the week I total up my numbers so I can compare week to week. When I’m in weight-loss mode, or concerned about the direction my weight is heading, I also total up my net calories for the week and divide by 7 to average them, but this is sheer geekery on my part. However, it’s useful because I know that if my average daily calories for the week are higher than about 1500, I should expect my weight to be trending up and I need to reinforce my efforts to bring things in line.
If this all seems really obsessive and overboard to you, and you are of a normal weight, then congratulations, you won the metabolism lottery. I lost it. I lost in a big way. Having been morbidly obese for most of my life, and only of a normal weight for the last ~8 years, I recognize that these are the steps I need to take to be healthy. I don’t have an instinctual ability to regulate my weight, I had to learn it the hard way, and I have to monitor myself constantly, a thing that people who are naturally thin or normal-sized do automatically. Record keeping is the best tool I have, and now that I’ve got a system it really doesn’t take much extra time or effort to do, but it pays off handsomely.