By Michael Dansinger, MD
There are many good reasons to keep a food record, as discussed in Food Records Part 1: Why Should I Keep a Food Record? Here I discuss various methods for keeping a food record. Many folks simply use a “pen and notebook” system, which works very well. Alternatively, one can use the more sophisticated advanced technology available on WebMD to keep a food record, or use one of the many downloadable applications available for smart phones.
The “pen and notebook” system is the most basic. I favor this method when meeting face-to-face with patients. Small notebooks often work well because they can be carried in a purse or pocket. A nicely sized notebook allows one day’s worth of eating to fit on a single page. I ask my patients to write both the day and date at the top of each page to help keep me oriented when I view the record. I ask them to list the amounts of each food—for example, “honeydew—1.5 cups” and to record the calories associated with that quantity of food in the right-side margin and provide a total for the day at the bottom of the page. I request a 7-day calorie average each week.
Although some people weigh and measure their food with a food scale and measuring cups, most use the “hand method” to estimate their food amounts. A closed fist is about a cup (or a bit more for larger hands) and a palm (thickness and diameter ignoring the fingers) is typically about 5 ounces for men and 4 ounces for women (give or take an ounce for larger or smaller-than-average hands). There are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon. Together, careful estimation of cups, ounces, or tablespoons can provide the information required to list the food intake quantities in most cases.
To determine the calories, one can use a calorie-counting book such as CalorieKing or Biggest Loser Calorie Counter. Foods are listed alphabetically in the appendix, which then refers you to the correct page with detailed nutritional information according to portion size. Calories and grams of carbohydrate, protein, and fat are typically provided. Before long, most people have memorized the calorie contents of the foods they eat most often, which is a tremendously helpful skill when trying to take off the last 10 pounds in a calorie-counting weight-loss strategy.
There are many free internet programs available for logging your food intake, and WebMD’s logging program is among the best. It is easy to get started (by clicking here and following the simple instructions). Once you enter the amount of a particular food, the program automatically provides the calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, and other more detailed nutritional information. A fabulous feature of the WebMD food log is how simple it is to keep a list of commonly eaten foods and just click and drag to enter each time you want to record that food. For example, if you tend to repeat the same breakfast often, it takes just a few seconds to update your food record with such frequently eaten foods.
There are many free and inexpensive apps available for smart phones. Examples include FitDay and My Fitness Pal. Many find this to be the most convenient way to keep a food log, especially because it is so portable. Some apps even allow one to scan the barcode of a product to help speed the process.
I believe that future versions of food logging programs will not only make logging more convenient—it will transform food logging into a game or entertainment. Immediate gratification for food logging would be a tremendous advance in my view. A fun example is the on-line Wok created by the world-famous Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. This computer program allows you to click and drag various icons of Asian ingredients into a virtual “wok” that sizzles while providing the nutritional information of a prepared dish containing all ingredients entered. For example, it took me about 30 seconds to get the nutritional information of a Chinese stir-fry containing chicken breast, broccoli, scallions, bean sprouts, canola oil, and soy sauce. I could almost smell the finished dish as it “cooked”—and I could quickly see it would be about 300 calories for a good-sized serving loaded with healthy protein, fiber, and not too much saturated fat.
Food logging is here to stay. We can’t seem to conquer diabetes and obesity without monitoring our food intake. I’m counting on technology to make it easier and than ever and even sort of fun to keep track of what we eat, while simultaneously taking comfort in knowing the “old-fashioned” low-tech methods also remain quite effective and relevant today.