In all of my initial reading about people who have successfully kept weight off long term (5 years or more), there were a few things that they had in common. The biggest being tracking what they ate.
I've gotten away from tracking in the last month, and really need to get back to it. Today is the day! I find that it helps me remember what I have actually eaten and, on occasion, it makes me think twice about what I put in my mouth. Seeing it on paper really highlights for me how much mindless snacking I do. Sometimes I get hard-core about tracking calories, other times it's just writing down what I've eaten. It lets me see patterns, like the fact that my problem eating is most often at night.
There are a lot of ways you can track your nutrition. The best way is the one which you are most likely to keep up with. For most people, that means convenience, which most often means an app or online tracking, like My Fitness Pal or Spark People. The Fit Bit allows for food tracking as well.
I have used My Fitness Pal. It's been off and on; I find it hard to be consistent in logging food with it, although I will use it to scan a barcode and look up nutritional information quickly. For whatever reason, I prefer the old-school pen and paper method. There's something soothing about writing by hand. I swear, it has nothing to do with needing complete control and being overly-detailed! Well, maybe not...
For me, if I'm going to track at all, I need to track everything. Sleep. Mood. Exercise. When I ate. Where I ate. Scale weight. Everything. I print out a month's worth of pages at a time and carry around a binder with me. It may seem awkward and cumbersome, but it works for me. On those occasions where I'm out and really don't want to pull out a giant binder and write down every ingredient that is in the entree that I ordered, I will use my phone to snap a photo. I usually include a fork or drink in the picture to give context for the size of the dish. It's still annoying for some friends, but in a world where people Instagram their meals, it's not so weird to photograph your food.
I came across a similar idea in an e-book called F@$k Calories, by Krista Scott-Dixon.
She suggests tracking your eating by using post-it notes and a camera. She explains it so well, and so amusingly, including references to Raffi songs!, that I've included a two page excerpt below (but do yourself a favour and go download the free e-book and read the whole thing). The gist of the idea is to jot down what you're thinking and feeling before you eat, put the post-it beside your food, and take a picture. Eat your food, and then take another picture with another post-it, saying how you felt AFTER you ate it. At the end of the day, look back and see your food story. Over time, ask yourself how you'd like to re-write that story, and what things you could change along the way. It's not about calories, it's about choices.
Another friend used a system of gold, green, and red stars on a calendar. She didn't track every detail, she just tracked how each day went. On days where she felt she ate really well, making choices she was happy with, and she also exercised to her satisfaction, she gave herself a gold star. On days where she did one or the other, she got a green star. Some days are like that, you know. They're a wash. You don't have time for exercise but the eating is healthy. Or you indulge in the food, but you also got your sweat on. For the days where neither happened, she gave herself a red star. I love this idea because it's all about balance. You don't have to beat yourself up for one "bad" day if you have a lot of gold on your calendar. You get to see the bigger picture.
There are pros and cons to each method, and you have to choose the one that is right for you.
Counting calories, tracking every detail, it can be crazy-making.
But if you are serious about losing weight, or need to track aspects of your health for any reason, then the bottom line is: if you bite it, write it.
(Downloadable versions: click the links and Save As)