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The Single Best Way to Lose Weight

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Customize your diary so it reflects the info that's most useful to you. For example, if you're someone who eats whenever food is in front of you, create columns in your journal to rate how hungry you were before and afterward. If you snack your way through hard days, add a column to describe how you were feeling when you ate. Trying to figure out when you're most drawn to junk food? Record where you were when you indulged and what was going on at the time. Also, if you're trying to break a specific habit, like scarfing down ice cream at night, create a column for that, so you can give yourself a star for each day you resist the urge.

Be Honest

Include every single bite, lick, and taste (anything larger than a crumb counts). And don't forget to keep track of your sips. Even the most diligent diarists often forget to include the glass of white wine they had at dinner (120 calories) and their 3 p.m. can of Coke (155 calories).

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Counting calories is easier for creatures of habit: If you have a bowl of cereal for breakfast almost every morning or a turkey sandwich three times a week, you won't have to look up the number each time.

Keep Your Diary Close

"I'm forgetful, so I always need to put the journal where I can see it — on my kitchen table, on my desk at work. I carry it a lot in my hand, too, as a reminder," says Melissa Smith, 32, of Omaha, who lost 25 pounds keeping a food diary.

You can also try this trick from Maryellen Mealey, 42, of Chicago, who lost big (188 pounds) keeping a journal: "I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't eat anything unless I wrote it down first. It's obsessive, but I'm a mindless snacker and putting everything in the book really helped me be more conscious," she says.

Examine the Evidence

No matter how diligent you are, a food log won't help in the behavior-changing department if you don't analyze it. At night, sit down and calculate how many calories you consumed. Tally up what food groups you're eating, and make adjustments. (A big plus of online tools is that they do a lot of the analysis for you, totaling everything with a click of a button and often giving you charts to show what you can improve.)

You may also want to consult a registered dietitian. A professional may see things in your diary that you don't (cost: usually $50 to $300 for an initial consultation). A two-year study from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle showed that participants who consulted a dietitian had better success keeping off weight than those who followed their usual diet.

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