Food Journals: You Don’t Need to Track Calories to Lose Weight

Seems counterintuitive, right? Everyone knows that food journaling is one of the most effective ways to lose weight and keep it off. A well-known study in 2008 showed that people who kept a food journal lost twice as much weight as people who didn’t.

Food journaling is even more effective when you share your journal with others. That extra bit of accountability makes a real difference. I recommend reading the whole article, but if you’re pressed for time, just read this part:

“You’re accountable to yourself when you’re writing it down and you’re accountable to other people who are looking at your food record,” said Victor Stevens, PhD, senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore.

So how can I sit here say that you don’t need to count calories to lose weight? Suddenly I think I’m smarter than a senior investigator at a fancy-pants research facility?

Dieting Dunce Cap

Nope, this is more my speed.

Actually, I readily attest to the benefits of food journal. The point that I’d like to make is this: “Food journaling” does not equal “tracking every single calorie.”

Reality Check

Don’t get me wrong. Tracking calories is beneficial. Most people routinely underestimate the number of calories in a portion. Tracking your calories is an excellent way to make sure you’re eating a reasonable number. If you kept a “calorie-only diary,” you would know exactly how you did at the end of the day, even if you didn’t remember exactly what you ate. I’m not suggesting that there’s no value in tracking calories.

But if you’re like me, you probably get sick of tracking your calories day after day. Maybe you had dinner at a friend’s house—no scale to be found—so you didn’t know exactly how many grams that slice of garlic bread weighed. And later, when you tried to enter “garlic bread – 1 slice” in your journal, you felt like throwing your computer out the window when you found that one brand’s slice is 150 calories and another brand’s slice is 270.

Some people won’t even bother to start a food journal because they think they have enter their calories to make it worthwhile. They know in advance that they won’t follow through.

Half the Battle

The thing is, a food journal can do so much more for us. It’s worthwhile even without a calorie number next to each food entry. Writing down the foods you eat is actually half the battle.

Imagine for a moment that you kept a “food-only diary.” It would help prevent eating amnesia—forgetting just what you ate earlier in the day. If you indulged in pizza for lunch, writing it down will remind you to skip dessert after dinner, or that you need to spend a few extra minutes on the treadmill.

Your food journal might even persuade you to to skip the fudge-covered Oreo cookies that some evil person left for everyone in the office kitchen. Even though you’re not looking up the exact number of calories, you still know that a fudge-covered Oreo probably has too many. It won’t help you reach your goal, and you’re not going to want to write it down.

oreo cookies

Trust me, the calories in this puppy are horrendous.

Bottom Line

If tracking calories is too much of a burden for you, keep a food-only journal for the other benefits. It’ll keep you more accountable to yourself, it will help you prevent eating amnesia, and it will keep you more accountable to other people who see your food journal. As long as you’re honest with yourself and consistent in your tracking, you can actually lose weight without tracking calories.

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