Start a Food Log

By Alia Hoyt

A cookie here. A bowl of pasta there. A handful of veggies drenched in ranch dressing. We think we know what we're taking in nutritionally, but reality is often pretty far off base. In particular, calorie intake when dining out -- which, let's face it, most of us do more often than we should -- is usually grossly underestimated, as revealed by a 2013 study published in British Medical Journal. Even so-called "healthy" meals can get derailed in a hurry, thanks to poor nutritional choices. "Salad dressing is the number-one source of fat in [many] women's diets, which attests to how many women turn a good salad into a cardiac disaster," explains Eat Your Way to Happiness author Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD.

When it comes to diet, we do a lot of things right, but most of us manage to make some serious blunders. Keeping a food log can help us get back on track, and it's not as difficult as you might think. See if any of these excuses sound familiar:

But... I don't understand what the point of a food log is. You know those contests where people fill a huge jar with jellybeans and you guess how many the jar holds, but you're wayyyyyyyyy under? That's pretty much what happens when it comes to "eyeballing" your calorie, fat and sodium intake. We think we know what we're consuming, but we're usually light years away from reality. A food log will help you keep track.

But... I don't have time to keep a food log. Back before the World Wide Web, my dad had a book full of foods and their calorie content. He painstakingly researched and recorded each and every meal and added up the calories himself. Let's all raise our voices in thanks for apps that now do the work for us. (I particularly love My Fitness Pal.)

But... I already eat healthy. Keeping a food log isn't only about the obvious culprits, like calories and fat. Most people unknowingly put away far more sodium than they realize in a given day, and we often overestimate our fruit and veggie consumption. A food log can be a wake-up call to improve habits we didn't even know needed fixing.

But... I don't understand how keeping a food journal can help me be healthier. In addition to recording the plain facts about your regular diet, a food journal can also help you better appreciate what you're doing wrong -- and inspire you to fix it. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women who kept a food log lost six pounds more than women who didn't.

But... I exercise so much I can eat whatever I want and still lose weight. Dude. No. That may be true for, say, Olympic athletes or professional ballerinas, but an hour at the gym won't help anyone lose weight if he (or she) is eating like a teenage boy.

But... I won't know how to fix the problems my food log shows me.Nutrition info is friggin' confusing. My eyes glaze over the minute someone tells me I should only get a certain percentage of my calories from fat. How on earth does a regular person figure that out accurately? The beauty of a digital food log is that it'll do all the work for you, and the fixes are actually pretty easy. For example, a nutrition journal can tell you that you're taking in too much sodium. To fix the problem, you can start looking at labels or choosing lower-sodium options. Same goes for trans fats, calories and other health-busters.

So think it over and pick a food-log format that works for you. In the journey to better health, we need every tool we can get!