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How tracking your diet for only 15 minutes a day helps with weight loss

Spending as little as 15 minutes to record what you eat can lead to more weight-loss success.
/ Source: TODAY

People hoping to lose weight are often urged to keep a food journal detailing what they eat throughout a day. While most people loathe it, a new study in the journal Obesity reveals that consistent dietary reporting leads to success. And, while it's a pain, recording calories takes less time than people think.

“(Self tracking) is actually quite hated … But, people who monitor and self-track do better, and do better for longer,” Jean Harvey, a professor in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont in Burlington and an author of the study, told TODAY. “People often say it is too time consuming but by the time they got practice, it took only 15 minutes a day.”

The study looked at 142 people enrolled in a weight-loss plan that required them to follow a low-calorie diet, exercise for 200 minutes a week and track how much they eat in a web-based program for six months.

Participants who tracked what they ate at least twice a day were more successful at losing weight than those who tracked only once a day. But doing it three times a day led to the best success, helping them losing 10 percent of their body weight.

“The more consistent you are, the better,” Harvey said.

She said experts have suspected that writing down what you ate after meals worked best for several reasons:

  • It helps people identify patterns in how they eat and helps them correct it.
  • It encourages people to make healthy modifications. Say someone eats a big lunch, she can simply eat fewer calories at dinner to stay within their limit.
  • It could help people skip that daily cookie or afternoon bag of chips — having to log it could discourage you from eating it.

“If you have gotten to the end of the day and you’ve eaten too many calories, you can’t fix it,” Harvey explained.

People balk at food tracking because of the time commitment but the study found that it takes less than a half hour a day to do it properly. When participants first started it took them about 24 minutes. By the end of the six months they spent only 15 minutes a day recording their food.

“This study highlighted the importance of tracking. There was a strong benefit of doing it three times a day,” said Alisa Sunness, a registered dietitian at the University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, who was not involved in the study. “It can work.”

Sunness said dietitians often use food journals as a tool to help people understand not just what they eat but why they eat. And, she believes developing the habit contributes to other healthy habits.

“That can lead to other positive behaviors, such as eating schedules, where there are plans for meals and snacks. Having an eating schedules leads to less impulsive eating,” she said. “It helps people stay mindful.”

While the study looked at participants using a website to track their calories, the experts agree that the numerous apps available for food reporting could make it even easier. Here are a few apps that people who have lost weight successfully recommend for food journaling:

  • My Fitness Pal
  • Lose It!
  • My Plate

And remember: You can always use a plain old notebook and pen.

“It really helps them maintain their focus,” Sunness said. “Even one or two changes at a time can feel really empowering.”

For more weight-loss inspiration, check out our My Weight-Loss Journey page. Interested in changing your habits? Sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter for extra support.