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Sisters Who Did This Lost 50 Percent More Weight

This isn’t about counting calories or steps. A health coach says tracking one surprising thing can help you eat better, shed pounds — and feel better too!

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Nicole Miles
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Like so many others, you may be eager to let go of that quarantine 15 you collected in 2020. But between coronavirus surges, political turmoil, homeschooling, lockdowns, furloughs and the re-shuttering of spots where we socialize, network and work out, just the thought of trying to adopt healthier eating habits may seem overwhelming.  

Still, it’s possible to make healthier choices, feel better and lose weight. And that starts with becoming more mindful of not only what you eat, but also of how you feel when you eat. A food-mood diary can help you do that. As the last months have shown us, we don’t eat just when we’re hungry. We might seek food’s comfort or company when we’re feeling lonely, scared, uncertain, bored or stressed, which are understandable given all that we’re dealing with. 

This type of food diary is not about calorie counting, although that is helpful. A food and mood log helps you become more aware of your habits and what drives them. Research shows that tracking what they ate helped obese dieters lose up to twice as much weight as those who didn’t keep records. 

For Tamika Simmons, a 50-year-old in-house counsel for a health care startup in Phoenix, using a food diary helped her to manage portions. “I always thought I was a fairly healthy eater, but my portions were just out of control,” she says. “Tracking helped me recognize that I could still feel satisfied with smaller portions.”

Simmons also learned that too much of anything — even so-called healthy food — can still make you pack on the pounds. As for foods that aren’t nutrient-dense, such as adult beverages, she’s learned that “alcohol is just empty calories. No way around that. Wine is delicious, but too much wine is fattening — and dehydrating.”

In my work as a health coach, I’ve seen how clients who keep food journals have an easier time connecting thinking, feelings and behavior, which helps them to change unhealthy habits. Macaroni and cheese may bring back happy childhood memories, and that may explain why you go back for seconds even though it does a number on your adult digestive system. Or maybe dining out with girlfriends makes it easier to order one cocktail too many or a rich, sugary dessert. Once you make the connections, you can decide how to make meaningful changes that last.

To create your own food-mood tracker, for a week jot down the time, what you ate, how you felt before and after and what digestive responses you noticed and anything else of note (such as dining out or eating alone). If you want to go digital, food-tracking and wellness apps that focus on food and mood include the mindful journaling app You Ate; See How You Eat, a photo diary app; and Rise Up + Recover, a tool especially helpful for those with eating disorders.

After completing your answers, notice how what you ate connected to your feelings and physical responses, and jot down any reflections that come up for you. After a week or two of entries, notice any trends, paying special attention to your mood and energy before and after eating. 

Consider the week or two of data as your baseline for making changes to your eating habits and a way to hold yourself accountable. This isn’t to beat yourself up about what you eat or how much — it’s to help you become more mindful of what you eat. Remember, mindfulness means awareness without judgment. With so much on our minds these days, many of us are on autopilot and not paying as much attention to how many trips we’ve made to the kitchen, how much sugar we put in our umpteen cups of coffee or how much snacking we do throughout the day. 

To help keep you on track, you can adopt the SMART goals method and apply it to how you eat. Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

Here are some SMART examples offered by the Harvard Medical School

Food diary observation: You average two servings of vegetables per day.
Goal: Eat more vegetables.
SMART goal: Eat three servings of vegetables per day.

Food diary observation: You order takeout three or four nights per week.
Goal: Cook more at home.
SMART goal: Order takeout no more than two nights per week.

Food diary observation: You eat healthy meals and snacks until about 3 p.m., when you hit the office vending machine.
Goal: Eat healthier snacks.
SMART goal: Bring a healthy snack (a piece of fruit and a small handful of nuts) to work every day.

Keep in mind that what you change is about what works best for you, not anyone else. Each of us will have different nutritional needs based on factors such as age, physical activity level, body composition, allergies and other considerations.