On the British cable series You Are What You Eat, host Gillian McKeith shows ordinary people how extraordinary their eating habits really are. She records every bit of food or drink that passes a person's lips for one week, and then spreads it all out before them on a great banquet-sized table.

Every morsel, every crumb is laid out for them to see: piles of take-out boxes brimming with oversized portions of salty, fried food; cup after cup after cup of sugary tea; cookies; pieces of cake; whole loaves of bread. Before McKeith whips them into shape with nutrition, cooking, and fitness tips, guests stand and stare with a mix of awe, disgust, and disbelief at the piles of food they've consumed.

McKeith's method is an extreme, visual version of a simple weight-loss trick that nutritionists, dietitians, doctors, and smart folks have used for ages: keeping a food journal. In a research study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2008, it was found that the more records participants kept in food journals, the more weight they lost.

The simple act of writing down what and how much we eat can have a profound effect on the way we eat. When we track our meals, snacks, and beverages, we can begin to note patterns and discover how extra calories sneak into our day. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight reduces our risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

"Keeping a food diary doesn't have to be a formal thing," says Keith Bachman, MD, a member of Kaiser Permanente's Weight Management Initiative, which assisted in the study. "It's the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behaviour."

Here are some strategies for effective food journaling:

  • Be honest. Consider a food journal a diary - for your eyes only and no reason to feel shameful or to censor yourself. You're not trying to impress anyone here. You're simply trying to learn more about your eating habits.
  • Be thorough about your thirst. Record each glass of water you gulped down, latte you sipped, and pop you chugged. Beverages count!
  • Be alert for unconscious eating. You'll want to take note of everything you eat - even that handful of chocolate candies you grabbed out of a coworker's treat jar or the cookie you nibbled while waiting for the dinner pasta to boil.
  • Be consistent. To get the most out of your food journal entries, they need to be a regular part of your routine. Stick this printable weekly food journal to your workspace bulletin board. Keep sticky notes handy. Zip off quick emails or text messages to yourself tallying your lunch and snacks - whatever it takes to track what you eat. If you wait until the end of the day, you're likely to forget a bite here and there or to fudge the details.
  • Be observant. After you've recorded a week's worth of meals and snacks, stand back and take a look. Do you notice any patterns or moments of weakness that make more sense in reflection? You may start to see that you need to have more healthy snacks on hand or plan ahead better before you go grocery shopping. Or you might realize that your lunches out with workmates are costing you more than what comes out of your wallet.

Food journals don't have to be a forever thing in your life, but they are a simple, cheap, and practical tool to help you lose a few pounds or maintain your healthiest weight and healthiest habits.

Amy Toffelmire