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3. You'll discover where your diet detours. continued...

A balanced diet is the key to weight loss, says Suzanne Farrell, R.D., who owns Cherry Creek Nutrition in Denver. "Whole grains, low-fat dairy, green vegetables, orange veggies, beans, nuts — science shows that we need to eat these regularly to reach a healthy body weight. So when I flip through my clients' journals, I always look for what I'm not seeing."

To find out how many servings of each food group you should be eating, go to mypyramid.gov. This tool will calculate the correct portions based on your age, gender, height, weight, and level of physical activity. It'll also tell you the number of calories you should aim for daily to lose weight.

4. You'll learn why you pig out.

Experts suggest that, to help break bad habits, you record not only what you eat, but the circumstances that prompt you to eat. For example, maybe you indulge in more sweets at work because you sit close to the vending machine. Maybe you have a milkshake several times a week because you pass Wendy's on the way home. Or maybe every time you worry about money, you retreat into the kitchen for chips.

When you begin to notice these patterns, you can figure out ways to change them. If the vending machine is a constant temptation, stock your desk drawers with fruit and granola bars. If you can't resist a fast-food sign, MapQuest a new route to work. If you eat when you're under pressure, steer clear of snacks and take a short walk instead (it's a scientifically proven stress buster).

Another bonus: "When you increase awareness of what's going into your mouth," says Thayer, "you'll feel fuller sooner than if you were just mindlessly munching."

5. You'll see real results — quickly.

Your food diary can be as revealing as the one you kept in fifth grade. For example, to get a glimpse into how much you've improved your diet, compare the entries in week one (Twinkie-filled) to week four or five (ideally, veggie-filled). You can also discover which decisions translated into pounds lost — for instance, that week you had fish for dinner twice might've helped you lose weight.

Food journals also let you give yourself credit where credit is due (personally, I reward myself with a gold star each day I resist eating candy). And that positive reinforcement is essential for shedding pounds.

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