Keeping Track for Success

By Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN

Keeping a log of eating and activity habits has long been considered the gold standard for effectively encouraging behavior change in relation to weight control and other health goals. Studies repeatedly show that people who monitor food and exercise consistently tend to be most successful in changing their habits. The success associated with record keeping could be attributed to the greater awareness that develops after detailed notes are taken. Or, perhaps the people most diligent about recordkeeping are simply most motivated to change their behavior. Either way, research and technology now offer multiple strategies to make it easier for people to monitor their habits.

Monitoring Your Eating and Exercise Habits Has Never Been Easier

A standard food record includes a list of everything you eat and drink throughout the day. Since it’s the details that affect the nutritional content, the record also asks for information related to how the food is prepared, the portion sizes, and the time and location of the meal. More detailed food logs may require you to also record the calories, fat or other nutritional content of your food choices. If the goal is to become more aware of the impact of your emotions on eating, you might also want to take notes of your mood each time you eat.

Despite such copious record keeping, getting an accurate account of your daily intake remains tricky. The constant logging is time-consuming, and it’s easy to miss the little bites of food scattered throughout the day. Furthermore, most people significantly underestimate their portion sizes.

A recent study published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests an alternative if such detailed record keeping turns you off. As part of a 16-week weight loss program, half of the participants were asked to keep a detailed log of eating and exercise habits for the full length of the program, while half were asked for detailed records for only the first eight weeks and then transitioned to simpler, check-off type records. Those who completed more records lost more weight, but weight loss did not differ based on the type of record. Researchers concluded that it could be the act of self-monitoring that matters most.

Another alternative is to record only those behaviors related to particular habits you want to change. If you want to boost your vegetable intake, for example, you might create a refrigerator chart and make a check mark for each standard serving you eat each day. If snacking is your downfall, try logging what you eat and drink between meals, perhaps noting whether you were bored, stressed or truly hungry. If you don’t get in a walk as often as you intended, “X” off each day that you do on your calendar.

Technology may make tracking your habits easier, too. Research at the University of Vermont recently tested the effectiveness of personal digital assistants (PDAs) that had been pre-loaded with nutrition analysis software for keeping food records. Users of PDAs and traditional paper formats were equally successful when it came to frequency and accuracy of record keeping and in losing weight. But once again, more frequent self-monitoring in either format was linked to greater weight loss.

Perhaps you’d prefer tracking behavior change online. Today there are many free websites that help you do just that. “America on the Move,” for example, promotes small gradual changes, such as finding 100 calories a day to cut from your diet and adding 2000 steps to your daily walking tally. Free registration at www.americaonthemove.org allows you to keep a daily log of your activity and converts your steps into a virtual walk across the Oregon Trail or even across the United Kingdom. The government’s website that explains and promotes the “MyPyramid” approach to healthy eating (www.mypyramid.gov) also has a tracker section where you can assess and monitor both eating and physical activity.

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian who promotes healthy eating as a syndicated nutrition news columnist, speaker and consultant with the American Institute for Cancer Research. For more information, please visit www.karencollinsnutrition.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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