Keeping food records and calorie counts is tedious, time-consuming and boring. So, is this often-recommended practice worth the trouble? Does it really help people achieve a healthy weight?
"There are some studies that show when people use some sort of monitoring of what they eat, they do better in the short term with weight loss," noted James Hill, director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Unit at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.
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But the accuracy of the calorie records doesn't seem to matter much. "People don't get what they eat right within even 75 percent," Hill said. "But I don't think it matters how accurate people are at all. Simply writing down what you eat makes you more conscious of what you eat."
Recording food intake also "brings a sense of realism," said Gary Foster, clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "People often feel, 'I've blown it. I'm back to were I started.' Food records keep you grounded in some real numbers."
While it's frequently recommended to keep food and physical activity records daily, it isn't necessary to record every morsel eaten and every lunge performed.
"If you eat the same breakfast and lunch every day, then just record your dinner and afterwards," said Foster. "Or just record snacks. Or maybe you just want to record on the weekends. Sort of pick your fights and look at where you are doing the most damage calorically."
The low-tech approach -- pencil and paper -- works as well as anything else in raising awareness of what's going into your mouth. But these days, those who seek more precise tallies of calories in and calories out have plenty of free options on the Internet that will track calories, activity, nutritional intake and, of course, your weight.
"There's no head-to-head comparison of paper and pencil versus electronic devices" for food or exercise records, Foster said. "But it makes intuitive sense that the easier you make this, and the more feedback you can provide, the better the outcome you would expect."
Here's a sample of the free services available online. Each site generally provides databases of foods and activities. You select what you have consumed -- or what activities you've done -- and the Web site does the calculations of total calories eaten and burned, nutrient composition and so on. Some will help you select a weight goal and graph your progress as you record food and activity. (Many diet and nutrition sites charge monthly or annual fees; none of those is listed here):
Fitday (www.fitday.com). Store food and exercise records on this site, which also offers the chance to post a public weight loss journal. Fitday tracks pounds lost, shows you what foods in your diet are providing the most calories, tallies what nutrients you've consumed and calculates how many calories you burned walking or even doing crunches with a stability ball. For $19.95, you can download a faster version of Fitday.
Interactive Healthy Eating Index (184.108.40.206/). Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this Web site can store up to 20 days of food records. A companion site -- the Physical Activity Tool -- records exercise. Both are a bit clunky. For example, if a serving size of fruit is half a cup and you ate a cup, you'll have to remember to put a "2" in the serving box. But that disadvantage is offset by the site's reliance on the massive USDA electronic food database, which provides thousands of entries and is the gold standard for calorie counts. This site also provides a daily "eating score" to see how your choices measure up to daily recommendations and it allows you to see how your intake matches up to the Food Guide Pyramid. Some users may find that their diets resemble hourglasses, heavy on sugar and fat, skimpy on fruit and vegetables, and rich in processed carbs.
Nutridiary (www.nutridiary.com). Worried about sharing personal information before you decide if you even like electronic food logging? This site allows you to register as a guest until your comfort level increases. Regular registration requires only minimal personal info. Nutridiary offers food information in pounds and ounces as well as metric measures. It stores up to 10 weeks of records and allows you to download information to a personal computer.
Nutritiondata (www.nutritiondata.com). If you love crunching numbers and wonder whether you're getting enough essential nutrients, this is the site for you. An electronic pantry allows you to look up a wide variety of foods and record your consumption of them, whether you're trying to shed a few pounds or gain weight. Like the USDA Web site, Nutritiondata requires a little calculating. But it also rates food according to a "fullness factor" -- showing you which foods will help you feel a little more satisfied for the same amount of calories. It also points out better food options than the ones you may be choosing. Unlike the other sites, it also provides a nutritional analysis of recipes once ingredients are plugged in -- perhaps just the right push to get you back into the kitchen.
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