More than 12.5 million American kids and teens are overweight, according to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, and their parents aren't doing much better -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 67 percent of American adults age 20 and older are considered overweight (and 34 percent are obese).
If you're thinking about putting your family on a diet -- whether it's for weight loss or for a healthier lifestyle -- keeping a food journal can help you reach your goal.
Using a food journal can help you figure out a few key things about your family's eating habits, including not only what foods are being consumed but also how much and how often.
Read on to learn how to get started.
Step 1: Getting Started
There are two basic things to do to get started: Choose the format of your food journal and figure out what things you want to track in it.
When choosing the format of your family's food journal, consider what will be easiest for everyone in the family. Will it be online? And if it is online, will everyone have access to it throughout the day? (Some online food journals, such as MyFoodDiary.com, offer access not only from your computer but via mobile platforms, too.) For some members of the family, a piece of paper or a notebook may work best for jotting down snacks and meals throughout the day while others may prefer to keep a meticulous log in an iPhone app such as Edibles.
The fundamental goal of a food journal is to track the food you and your family eat, how much of it you each eat and when you're eating it. Include basic categories such as type of food, reason for eating (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, coffee break, etc.), amount, and date and time. Other categories, such as the number of calories or your mood while eating, might be good additions depending on what your goals are. Counting calories, for example, could help adults pinpoint problem areas that, if addressed, could trim their waistline, but will be difficult for kids to complete. Tracking your mood when you reach for food -- outside of breakfast, lunch and dinner -- could help you identify if you or your kids are snacking due to boredom or if it's out of true hunger. What matters is that everyone participates and tracks the same information.
Step 2: Keeping Up With It
Each family member participating in the family food journal needs to record everything he or she eats and drinks, including snacks and glasses of water. Tracking your food intake means if it goes into your mouth, you track it. Encourage family members to be as specific as possible. For example, if you have a salad at lunch, make sure to list all the ingredients of the salad, from mixed greens to the sunflower seeds you sprinkled on top, not just the salad itself. And don't forget the dressing
How long you keep your food journal is up to you, as is how often you consolidate everyone's information into one place. You'll start to see a pattern in about a week, but even after a day or two, you might see some red flags.
Step 3: Make It Work for You
According to a recent study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research and reported in the "American Journal of Preventive Medicine," people who tracked what they ate in a food diary for a span of at least five days a week lost almost twice as much weight as those dieters who didn't use a journal.
What do you do with the information you get from keeping a food journal? A few things -- it all depends on your family's needs.
The big takeaway is that you learn your family's eating habits (what, when and how often), and with that, you can change all sorts of things. Your journal may show you how much processed food your family is eating, leading you to shop from a more healthy grocery list. Or, maybe your journal cues you in to how often your family eats home-cooked meals versus restaurant fare, or how much fast food your kids (or you) really consume. Portion control is also important, and with the help of the data in your food journal, perhaps you'll see that while your family eats mostly healthy foods, it eats too much of it. Remember -- eat too many calories in relation to how active you are, regardless of whether those calories come from a Twinkie or tempeh, and you'll gain weight.
It can take as many as three to six weeks to get used to changes and make them stick, so keep it up and you'll find that in about a month, you've changed your habits.