Do you know what your energy balance scale looks like? Most of us have no idea. In fact, research shows that our perceptions of what we eat and how much physical activity we do are way off the mark.
In a survey of more than 5,700 adults, most thought they ate more fruits, milk, and protein foods than they actually did. Women tended to overestimate -- and men tended to underestimate -- the number of vegetables they ate. And most thought they were eating much fewer grains, fats, oils, and sweets than they actually were.
Before you can put yourself on a calorie budget, then, it's important to get an accurate picture of what you currently eat and how active you really are. That's why this page shows you how to keep a food and activity log -- a sort of inventory of your diet. After you've done that for a few days, you'll learn how to use the Dietary Guidelines' recommendations to adjust the amount of calories you consume and the amount of calories you expend to achieve the weight-loss goal you've set. It's a balancing act you'll get good at!
Take an Eating and Activity Inventory
The only way to raise your awareness of what you actually eat and how active you are is to keep a log for at least three days. If you're under any illusions about your calorie intake and calorie expenditure or what foods you eat, this will quickly dispel them. The inventory will also help you uncover patterns in your eating and activity behaviors. You'll be able to identify situations and emotions that cause you to overeat or make poor choices.
Armed with that information, you can develop some strategies to take control over your habits instead of letting them control you. And the inventory will give you a very good idea of how your diet stacks up against the Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid (the USDA interactive food guidance system) intake recommendations.
You are the only one who will see this inventory, so be completely honest. An inventory that truly reflects your current habits will help you target problem areas and make changes that will lead to successful weight loss. And it will help you design a plan that includes many of your favorite foods and gets you moving in ways that fit into your lifestyle. For a blank copy of a diet inventory than you can print out and use, click here.
- Log typical days: Take your inventory on three typical consecutive days. Aim for two workdays and one nonwork or weekend day. Avoid taking your inventory when your schedule is hectic or when you're traveling or sick.
- Don't wait: Carry your log with you and write down everything as you eat it or as you do it. Don't wait until the end of the day: Studies show that you can't rely on memory. If you don't have your inventory sheet with you, jot down your meal, snack, or activity on any piece of paper and add it to your inventory later.
- Record everything!: Be sure to record any food you eat or beverage you drink, no matter how small. That includes nibbles and bites you take while preparing food or eating on the run. The old joke about cookies not counting if they're broken does not apply!
- Be specific: For foods and beverages, record the specific amount you consumed. For example, did you eat about 1/2 cup of rice, 10 potato chips, 6 ounces of milk, or 3 ounces of chicken? Try to measure everything you eat and drink at least once. Determining your typical portion size is very important, so don't skip this part of the process. Also record the number of calories. If you're not sure how many calories are in a particular food, look on the product's Nutrition Facts panel. Be sure to log the amount of time you spend in physical activity, too. Record the number of minutes, as well as the intensity level.
- Include food preparation details: Record how food was prepared -- was it raw, baked, breaded, fried, steamed? And log everything you add to your food, such as butter, ketchup, sauce, gravy, and salad dressing. When recording mixed dishes, list ingredients separately. For instance, your sandwich might have 2 slices of whole-wheat bread, 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, and several slices of ham that are about 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards), plus 2 leaves of lettuce.
- Assess your hunger: On a scale of one to five (1 is not hungry; 5 is ravenous) rate how hungry you are every time you eat. If you weren't hungry, mention why you ate: Were you bored, sad, or excited? Did someone offer you food and you couldn't refuse? If you understand why you eat when you do, you'll be better able to change and control your eating habits.
- Quantify by category: Indicate the number of cups or ounces you ate from each of the five food groups. You'll need this information later on to design a diet plan that follows the Dietary Guidelines and the MyPyramid food guidance system. To fill out the Discretionary Calorie columns, use calories or grams, whichever you prefer. Determining the amounts to enter in the columns can be tricky, because they are not just calories from snack foods. They include calories from fat and sugar in foods that you may have eaten to fulfill your nutrient needs in each food group. For example, dairy products in the milk group of the Guidelines are all nonfat. So if you eat dairy products that are low fat or full fat, you'll need to account for the fat calories (or grams) in those products in the "solid fat" column in the discretionary calorie section of your log. You can find the amounts listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. The same principle applies to meats. Only the leanest cuts of meat are included in the Guidelines' meat group, so if you choose fattier cuts or didn't trim off all visible fat, include those additional fat grams or calories in your discretionary calorie allowance. In addition, shortenings used in baked products, hard margarines, mayonnaise, and cream or creamer should be included in the fat column. One teaspoon of fat equals four grams or 36 calories. In the sugar column, which is part of your discretionary calorie allowance, only account for added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup or table sugar, that are added to foods and beverages during processing or preparation. Do not list sugars in unsweetened dairy products or beverages that are 100 percent juice, because these are not added sugars; they occur naturally.
- Total the categories: At the end of each day, add up the quantities you've logged in each food category column, as well as the number of minutes of physical activity. Write this in the "Totals of Food Categories -- Amount Consumed (or Minutes of Activity)" row.
Keeping track of everything you put into your mouth and all of your activity for several days can seem very tedious. Yet people who write it all down report that it is the most useful tool they have for getting in touch with their eating and activity habits.
Numerous studies, too, report that those who keep a food diary eat fewer calories. The most successful weight losers continue to keep an Eating and Activity Inventory for a few days every month.
Even though you may be impatient to get on with the process, don't skip this part. You are strongly encouraged to log a minimum of three day's worth of eating, drinking, and activity -- this IS part of the process!
For a more precise evaluation of your calorie balance, log onto www.MyPyramid.gov. Go to the section called "MyPyramid Tracker." Click on "Assess Your Food Intake." Here you can enter your daily food intake -- from one day up to a year's worth of days. The report will tell you precisely how many foods you're eating in each category and how many calories you're consuming. Also in the MyPyramid Tracker you can determine your calorie expenditure more precisely. Click on "Assess Your Physical Activity" to enter the length of time you do activities throughout the day and the intensity level. It will instantly calculate an estimate of the calories you used.
Before you can effectively fill out your inventory, you have to understand quantities and serving sizes. After all, recording an accurate diet needs a good standard for measuring food items. The next section will provide a good guide for measuring items like fruits and vegetables.