How to be a good weight loser – Part 2: using a food log

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published at, 2001.

Get the Green Light before You Start Your Weight Loss Effort

Before you begin any weight loss effort, make sure you have checked with your physician and received a medical green light to go ahead. Then, assess conditions in your life now. Is this the right time in your life for focusing on your weight? If it is not, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. For instance, if you are under an unusual amount of stress (for example, having to care for someone in your family who is ill), this may not be the ideal time to think about losing weight.

Become Aware of Your Eating Patterns

If you are ready to lose weight and the conditions in your life are right, then a food log could be a useful tool in your efforts.

The first step for successful weight loss – and perhaps the most important one – is to become aware of when and how you eat. Many people with weight problems find that they engage in unhealthy eating patterns. Do you find that you eat on the run? Might you be eating when you are feeling upset, bored or lonely? Rather than sitting down at a table to eat, do you have a tendency to snack or “graze” your way through the day?

Awareness of Your Patterns Helps You Know What to Change

Making lasting changes in your weight calls for a change in your eating behaviors. But before you can change your behavior, it is important to become aware of what you eat, when you eat and why you are eating. A food log, also called a food diary, can help you with this.

Many times we are not even aware of how much we actually eat or the circumstances under which we eat. Some people may also underestimate how much they have eaten at a meal. Add to that the fact that we all have varying definitions of what we consider to be a portion. Was that “one portion” of mashed potatoes actually one cup or two? A food log also helps you nail down these areas of ambiguity with regard to portion size.

While a food log is not a form of “treatment” per se, it is a very useful tool for becoming aware of your eating habits, and is a part of current psychological approaches to weight loss. (For more information on how psychology can help you lose weight, please see link below.)

What is in a Food Log?

A food log consists of the dates, times and places foods are eaten. It reads like a list, and includes the food that was eaten, the amount that was consumed, the time of day it was eaten, how long it took you to eat something, and the social and emotional circumstances under which the eating took place.

How to Use a Food Log

It is a good idea to record your eating over a period of a week. Since many people’s eating is also connected to their social life, it is a good idea to include the weekend in your record as well.

You should keep the form with you at all times. One form per day works well. Immediately after you have eaten something, be it a sandwich, a piece of fruit, or just one little cookie, pause and write it down in the appropriate part of the form. Because this is about learning to identify eating related patterns, you need to record even little items such as breath mints and chewing gum.

It is important to record all beverages, including water. This way you can see whether you are getting enough liquids in a day. Also, if you happen to add cream or sugar to your coffee or tea, you need to note this as well, so that you have as complete a picture of your eating and drinking habits as possible.

Learn to Identify How Much You Eat

There is a famous potato chip advertisement in the US: “Bet you can’t just eat one!”

You’re right. I can’t eat just one – but how many did I actually eat – two, three, four ? Naming exactly how much we have eaten is a challenge for all of us. But a food log is a good way to learn to determine the size of a portion and to become conscious of it.

Identify Your Particular Eating Patterns

Each person has their particular pattern of eating and their own particular set of vulnerabilities. For some people, stress plays a role in their overeating. For others, it may be that when they are with friends in a social situation, they stop watching how much they eat, and as a consequence overeat.

Through your entries, you can gain insights into your specific patterns. Then in response, you can develop personalized strategies for changing your eating plans.

Sample Food Log Entries

Look at your food log and see what you can find out about your eating patterns. Here are some examples of entries from people’s food logs:

“Frank”, a 53 year old businessman, wrote: 7 a.m., 1 cup black coffee, 1 slice wheat toast with 1 pat of margarine; feeling hectic; 4 minutes.

“Hanna”, a 68 year old grandmother, wrote: 3 p.m., 4 chocolate chip cookies and 1 8 ounce glass of skim milk; sitting at kitchen table with grandchildren; feeling good; 45 minutes.

Likewise, make entries into your log each time you eat or drink something. Then, when you have filled out a week’s worth of food logs, put them together and see what kind of pattern emerges.

Identify Your Patterns

For some people the pattern has to do with what they eat. For others, their pattern offers clues about eating due to frustration or stress. Take a look at your completed log and see what you can find out about:

  • Types of foods you eat: e.g. was it high in fiber and low in fat, or the other way around?
  • Time of day when you are most vulnerable to inappropriate eating: e.g. are you prone to eating very little in the morning and then feeling ravenous by the end of the day?
  • Particular places and settings where you might be vulnerable to inappropriate eating: e.g. do you snack while watching TV?
  • Emotions: e.g. do you eat because you are upset about something?
  • Conditions under which you tend to eat: e.g. do you snack on high fat foods when alone, where no one can see you? Or is it when you are out with friends and chips and salsa are placed in front of you?
  • The amount of time it takes you to eat something: e.g. do you gulp food down quickly or do you tend to slowly savor what you are eating?

Customizing Your Action Plan

What you eat is set within the broader context of your life. This means that if you want to lose unwanted weight, you need to get at your particular patterns – especially in terms of your daily life. Everyone indulges once in a while, especially at holidays. But for the most part, it is the overall way in which we live our lives that has the biggest impact on how much we weigh. That is why it is important to look for patterns and not just one-time only events. In this way, the more you can identify about your patterns and vulnerabilities, the better you can take action against them.

Part 3 of this series will list some of the most common reasons why people engage in inappropriate eating, along with suggestions for dealing with them.

1. Behavioral Treatment of Obesity T.A. Wadden, G.D. Foster, Medical Clinics of North America, 2000, vol. 84, pp. 441–461
2. What is the role of cognitive-behavior therapy in patient management? J.P. Foryet, W.S.C. Poston III, Obesity Research, 1998, vol. 6, pp. –

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.