How Food Diaries Work

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Ant Strack / Corbis

I don't know why frosted cinnamon rolls call my name from behind glass bakery counters, or why, even as I write this, I can't stop obsessing about the leftover pizza in the kitchen just a few yards from my desk. Introspection has its limits, though — you can try to understand why you overeat, but sometimes it's more useful to figure out how to keep yourself from doing it. Zorba the Greek overcame his cravings for cherries by gorging on them until he got sick. I settled on a less indulgent approach to shed my food obsessions: I started a food journal.

The point wasn't just for reminiscence. A food journal is a confession; you tell the truth about eating half a pizza for breakfast because, well, you always know when you're lying. Journaling felt weird at first — I had a hard time even remembering what I had eaten by the end of each day — but after just one month of telling all to my food diary, I had dropped five pounds. It turns out lots of people lose weight this way. A new study by Kaiser Permanente in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine confirms what my own self-study suggested: among dieters who were trying to lose weight, those who wrote down everything they ate lost twice as much as those who did not.

I'm no fan of self-deprivation. I drink gimlets, eat cookies and wolf down the occasional late night snack. And while regular exercise has made me fitter, it hasn't made me thinner. Like many people past their 20s, I'm about 15 lbs. heavier than I was as a teenager. I'm not fat (my body mass index is normal), but I'd still like to drop a few pounds. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to look like Posh Spice — who is rumored to nibble on frozen grapes as a treat — but I don't want to look like Oprah either.

Losing those five pounds may not sound like much, but it was a personal triumph for me. It wasn't the first time I'd set my mind to losing weight, but it was the first time I actually succeeded. Where sheer willpower and daily exercise had failed, writing it all down worked like a charm.

Here's the best part about keeping a food journal: I never felt like I was on a diet, and I never had to rule out any specific foods. I didn't cut out carbs altogether, but I got better at remembering to replace bread with fruit and vegetables for at least one meal a day. I ate less meat and less junk food. I felt absolutely virtuous as I scribbled down every healthy ingredient in my salads and wrote the word "small" to describe the slice of blueberry pie I had on the Fourth of July (and the two pieces of cornbread I had for breakfast last Saturday).

Self-indulgence may have worked for Zorba, but moderation is my secret ingredient. I'm eating healthier without resorting to some extreme menu plan. And I've never really blown it — not even once — since I started my journal in June. Sure there are moments when I'd love to gobble down "11 chocolate chip cookies and a pint of ice cream for dessert," but I just can't bring myself to have to write that down after listing my healthy salad. Maybe it's a kind of self-brainwashing (salad = good), but it works. And I bet many of the diarists in the Kaiser Permanente study kept their mouths closed for the same reason.

So grab a pen and start taking notes. It may not be as fun as stuffing yourself with cherries, but I promise you'll feel a whole lot better afterwards.