Healthy living is a culmination of small habits, and while many of these habits are simple — drink more water, exercise regularly, eat more vegetables — they still require a certain level of effort. It can be all too easy to get swept up in the busyness of your day until you collapse into bed at night and realize you haven’t remembered to do any of these things.

We tend to think that maintaining good health and losing weight are all a matter of willpower, but research shows this isn’t the case. Not only do countless genetic variants affect your health and your weight, but people who learn to use certain tools and make them a part of their daily routine tend to be more effective at meeting their health goals.

One such tool is a food journal. By simply tracking what, when, and even why you eat, you can gain valuable insight about your food choices and how they affect your health. If you are aiming to lose weight, extend your longevity, or simply improve your overall health, a food journal is the ideal way to identify your habits, learn what you need to change, and discover the practices that help you feel your best.

What to track in your food journal

A thorough food journal will contain more than just a list of your meals. Writing down as many details as possible will help you identify behaviors that may be holding you back from reaching your goals. Consider some of these aspects to include in your food journal:

What you eat

The most obvious information to track in a food journal is the food that you consume. The specifics that you choose to include may vary depending on your goals. If you’re following a low-carb diet, you may want to track your macronutrients and make sure your meals fall into an acceptable distribution of protein, carbs, and fat. If your goal is simply to eat more vegetables, you may want to focus on tracking the number of vegetable servings you eat per day. It’s also a good idea to keep track of any foods that fall outside of your diet plan. You may think it’s harmless to sneak a few pieces of chocolate from your coworker’s candy dish, but once you start tracking your food, you may discover you do this far more often than you previously realized.

Portion size

Arguably the second most important element to include is the amount of each food that you eat. It’s extremely easy to overeat, especially if you aren’t paying attention to your meal. You may realize that you can become full with much less food than you are used to. In fact, it’s a good idea to stop eating when you are 80 percent full in order to avoid putting too much strain on your digestive system. A food journal can help you pay more attention to how much food you actually need.

Speed

Take a note of how fast you are eating. If you tend to eat your food too quickly, you will feel unsatisfied – even if you are full. Eating slowly can help you recognize when you’re full and increase your enjoyment of your meals.

Water intake

Hydration plays a huge role in both overall health and weight loss. Many common health problems – including fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, poor sleep quality, and digestive problems – are associated with dehydration. Not drinking enough water can also interfere with your attempts to lose weight. And the standard 64-ounce daily recommendation may not be enough for everyone. Some health experts recommend drinking at least half an ounce of water for each pound of body weight. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need to drink at least 75 ounces of water every day. Carry a reusable water bottle with you, and use your food journal to keep track of your water intake. Also remember that you can count tea or some flavored waters towards your fluid intake, but not beverages such as coffee, soda, and alcohol. In fact, you may need extra water to compensate for the diuretic effects of these drinks.

Time

Write down the time of day you eat each meal or snack. Tracking your eating patterns may help you identify the cause behind some of your eating habits. For example, if you realize that you get caught up with work and don’t eat lunch until later in the day, it may explain why you tend to binge on unhealthy foods. For some people, being more mindful of when you eat may be an important step towards building healthier habits.

Hunger level

Noting how hungry you are before you eat can provide further insight into your eating habits. Some people find they eat for a variety of reasons that do not include actual hunger, such as stress or boredom.

How you’re feeling

Taking note of your current mood may offer insight about what is driving your urge to eat certain foods. If you realize that a certain emotion, for instance stress, is influencing your eating behavior, you can improve your habits by finding other ways to respond to that emotion. You can also track how you feel after eating certain foods – giving in to cravings for junk food may leave you feeling tired and guilty, while opting for a healthy snack may improve your mood and energy level. Also consider checking in at the end of the day and making a note of how you feel. Did your choices that day leave you feeling exhausted or energized?

Who you’re with

Make a note of who you are eating with at each meal. Tracking who you eat with can help you remain aware of and resist the influence of people who may be sabotaging your goals. Studies show that we become like the people we spend the most time with. If you find yourself eating fast food every time you dine with coworkers, it may be time to rethink your lunch routine.

Recognizing your habits

In order for your food journal to be an effective tool, you will need to identify and evaluate the patterns that emerge. Take a few minutes at the end of the week and review your notes. What can you learn from your choices, and what changes can you make going into the next week? Perhaps bringing your lunch to work will allow you to skip the fast-food outings with coworkers, or being more proactive about stress management will help you avoid stress eating.

Increasing your awareness

Over time, your food journal will help you become more mindful about the foods you choose. Just knowing you’ll have to write it down may be enough to keep some people from hitting the vending machine. And it’s harder to justify a trip through the drive-thru when you’re more aware of the effect it has on your long-term goals. Of course, you can still choose to indulge in certain foods once in a while, but when you do, it will be a conscious choice – not a mindless habit.

Identifying hidden problem areas

Many people believe they have healthy eating habits and are confused by health challenges such as weight-loss plateaus or high blood pressure. Tracking your food may help you identify and eliminate hidden ingredients that are getting in the way of your goals. That flavored water you drink every day may contain artificial sweeteners, or the fast-food salad you grab for lunch may actually contain a full day’s worth of sodium. Until you take the time to really evaluate what you’re eating, these seemingly healthy choices may continue to go unnoticed.

Tracking your progress

One of the most difficult parts of building healthy habits is staying motivated in the absence of any discernible progress. Significant change takes time, and established patterns can be difficult to break. It’s easy to grow frustrated and give up if you don’t notice immediate benefits after adopting a new way of eating. A food journal will not only help you identify your patterns, it will provide clear evidence of your progress. As you look back through past entries, you may realize you no longer have cravings for many of the foods you used to eat. You may realize that you’ve gained a new appreciation for certain fruits and vegetables. You may even realize that you’ve changed your relationship with food – it’s isn’t something to fear or avoid, but rather something that can nourish you and help you feel stronger, more energized, or even younger.

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