7 Reasons Keeping a Food Journal is Better Than Counting Calories

by | Jun 16, 2014

Photo by Paul Papadimitriou

I’m often asked why I don’t put more emphasis on calories and calorie counting, particularly for people trying to lose weight. The answer is that while I think there is great value in understanding and monitoring the types and amounts of foods that you eat––especially if you’ve never paid attention––your effort is much better spent keeping a food journal than on an endless race between your mouth and the treadmill.

The idea behind calorie counting is that you write down the calories in everything you eat and make sure it stays below a certain number each day. If you want to take it even further you can monitor the calories you burn during exercise as well, and factor that into your daily allowance. In theory it helps to know your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories your body naturally burns if you sit around and do nothing all day––this is your baseline), but that involves an expensive test in which you breathe through a tube for 15 minutes. I’ve done it, it isn’t fun.

Food journaling also requires writing down everything you eat, but emphasizes portion sizes (e.g. ounces, grams, etc.) instead of calories. It can also include information like the time of day you eat, other activities related to eating (e.g. working out, watching TV, etc.), and how you feel after eating. In Foodist I recommend keeping a food journal for at least two weeks to build awareness of what, why, when and how much you eat. The ultimate goal is to help identify the habits (along with their triggers and rewards) that shape your healthstyle. You can then use this information to build on what works and learn from what doesn’t.

While I would never tell anyone to stop counting calories if it works for them, here are seven reasons I think keeping a food journal is more effective for most people.

7 Reasons Keeping a Food Journal is Better Than Counting Calories

1. Mindfulness, not calories, is the key

Not to be a buzzkill, but if calorie counting is working for you it probably isn’t because you are a math whiz (more on this later). Simply knowing that you’ll be recording your actions is enough to entice most people to make better choices, whether we realize it or not. Calorie counting certainly provides this, and is likely the reason so many people swear by it. But you get this benefit and more from keeping a food journal instead.

2. Calorie data are inaccurate

If you are counting calories chances are you’re relying on one of the mega databases of food information or worse, the nutrition info printed on a menu or box, to get your numbers. It comes as a shock to most people to learn that the calorie information on packaged foods is legally allowed to be off by 20%, and I can guarantee you that the majority of them are not overestimating their values. Restaurant menus have also been shown to be pretty far off the mark in the calorie estimates they print.

Even real foods listed in the databases like fruits, vegetables and meats only represent average values of industrially produced foods, and the ones you actually eat can be quite different depending on factors like the season, soil quality, and serving size (what exactly is a “medium” apple?). The only way to accurately determine the calories in a specific food is to incinerate it in a calorimeter, which makes it pretty tough to then eat it.

Measuring calorie expenditure is equally difficult to do accurately. Most measures you get from the “quantified self” equipment people are using these days is based on rough calculations for an average person of your height and body weight. It doesn’t take into account your baseline metabolism or how hard or effectively you’re actually working. Without accurate data, it is nearly impossible to use math to determine your true calorie needs and usage.

Again, I still think there is value in paying attention to these things. It’s just the numbers I don’t trust.

3. Calorie needs change daily, and with body weight

To take the numbers argument even further, setting up a daily calorie goal is equally problematic. Our calorie needs change daily, depending on how active we are and even how hard we’re thinking (our brains use a tremendous amount of energy). Moreover, if the goal is weight loss our calorie needs will decrease accordingly, and how much depends on the relative values of fat and muscle we lose. In other words, the amount of calories you need today isn’t necessarily the same as it will be next week.

4. Calorie limits encourage the “what-the-hell effect”

Another problem with having an arbitrary calorie goal is that encourages what is known as the what-the-hell effect. Research has shown that dieters have a tendency to psychologically batch a given day into “good” (i.e. I stayed under my calorie goal) or “hopeless” (i.e. I screwed up, so what-the-hell I might as well enjoy it now and start again tomorrow). In these instances dieters typically eat far more than they ever would have if they hadn’t dieted in the first place, undoing days of virtuous behavior. The psychology of a dieter does more harm than good in the long run, and counting calories only serves to encourage this.

5. Counting calories encourages “nutritionism”

Nutritionism is the practice of emphasizing the value of individual nutrients over whole foods, and what has enabled the food industry to market so many processed foods as healthy.  Counting calories encourages this way of thinking, and as a result de-emphasizes the value of real food. Food quality is important for both taste and nutritional value, and these measures are neglected when calories are your focus.

6. Food journaling helps you identify habits

A good food journal does more than track foods and portion sizes. If you record the time of day that you eat and other activities that surround your eating habits, your food journal should help you identify consistent patterns in your eating. Once you are aware of these habits you can set about trying to identify the trigger that initiates the habit, and the reward that reinforces it. This knowledge is incredibly valuable for both creating new habits and reprogramming those that are holding you back. With an emphasis on habits instead of numbers, food journaling continues to have value even after you stop doing it.

7. Counting calories feels neurotic

As you probably know by now, my mantra when it comes to food and health is that life should be awesome. Call me crazy, but calorie counting doesn’t seem very awesome. One of the major differences between calorie counting and food journaling is that your food journal is meant to be temporary. It is designed to build awareness of your habits, and teach you how to judge portion sizes (most of us are innately terrible at this). Once you get some practice at this you shouldn’t need to continue your journal indefinitely.

Counting calories is different in that it doesn’t teach you much of anything except whether or not you were “good” or “bad” for the day. Theoretically you could stop counting calories once you reach your goal weight, but since restricted eating doesn’t come naturally to humans most people find that if they stop counting the weight comes back. That means you need to keep counting calories and restricting your eating forever. Not fun.

You can always turn back to your food journal if you reach a weight loss plateau or get stuck along the way, but there is no reason to let food journaling become an obsession like calorie counting can be. Life is too short to be so neurotic about food and weight loss.

What is your experience with calorie counting and/or food journaling?

Originally published July 15, 2013.

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49 Responses to “7 Reasons Keeping a Food Journal is Better Than Counting Calories”

  1. Kevin says:

    Are there any food journal “best practices” you recommend? There must be some awesome online tools to keep food journals, but the ones I’ve found in a quick search seem questionable.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I haven’t found many good ones either, as most emphasize calories. I like a good ol’ fashioned pen and paper. I keep a small journal in my purse when actively journaling.

      I talk about food journaling and habit analysis extensively in Foodist, but starting with the types of food measured portions, time of day and concurrent activities is a great place to start.

    • Steffi says:

      Inspired by your post I bought Foodish in the app store. It’s probably not the best app, but the idea is to take pictures of your food. I realized that it’s perfect for me since it slows me down just enough to notice (and appreciate) what I am eating and I also feel ‘pressured’ to arrange the food nicely on a plate instead of eating right out of the package… Foodish has a nice design, but a lot of features missing. Setting up an Evernote notebook just for that might be another way to do it.

      • EJ Ogenyi says:

        Steffi, Evernote has a great app called Evernote food that syncs to evernote. Plus you can take pictures of your food and write your chosen details in the caption. Examples of what you can put in your caption include relevant serving size information like a glass of milk if you cooked oatmeal with it. You can also add info about how you are feeling. Also I find the meal notes to be an awesome way to summarize the day. Hope this helps.

  2. Rachel says:

    I agree with journaling. Calorie counting makes healthy foods like nuts seem like a bad idea, when they are much better for me than fewer calories from something processed or sugary foods. I do think measuring needs to come into play because we can underestimate the size of high calorie items.

    Do you have a journaling page layout you recommend?

    • Darya Rose says:

      I talk about food journaling and habit analysis extensively in Foodist, but starting with the types of food measured portions, time of day and concurrent activities is a great place to start.

    • Steve says:

      I’ve become a fan of
      caloriecount.about.com

      with all the accuracy caveats mentioned in the article. the nutrition content information, if even remotely accurate is interesting at the least.

  3. It is funny, the way you described the food journal is exactly what I did while counting calories on LiveStrong.Com. I never used it as a
    end-all-be-all for my weight lost goals, but more of a guide.

    My concern with the food journal that you stated is I am a horrible judge of portion sizes. I understand that calories are relative, but I can easily understand that more then I can 4 ounces of carrots or chicken. Does this make sense? Any tips for it?

    • Darya Rose says:

      I actually do recommend weighing and measuring your food for a couple weeks to train yourself to know what these values look like. Servings sizes always volume or weight, so it should be less abstract, not more abstract than calorie numbers.

  4. Pepperkorn says:

    Very funny – people always ask me why I don’t even try to keep in my calorie limit on iphone apps that count calories. I purposefully have counters as buddies so they can see how it serves as a guide, not a hard and fast rule – you have to live without it at some point so it must be a lesson in mindfulness not in adhering to rules. Plus my lack of adherence helps buddies be more truthful to themselves, not cutting out a little snack here or a portion size there just to look like they’re sticking to calorie counts on the record. Your body doesn’t know an “off the record” snack from not.

    Also – you really notice when things just dont add up – last year I was chowing down almonds and it wasn’t effecting anything weight-wise and then that study on how they think they’ve calculated almond calories all wrong came out. I did my superior dance “I knew it!”

    I admit I found you AFTER I became a Foodist – you just put it all into words. I give your book to everyone I care about who wants to be more mindful about eating. Thank you for articulating all my epiphanies and doing way more leg work than I’m willing to do! You are awesome! I can’t use enough exclamation points !!! :-)

  5. Trixie says:

    I agree with you on calorie counting…it’s neurotic and I feel like I end up thinking about how many calories I’m eating all day if I do it! I think it also encourages the “what the hell” effect if you have calories left at the end of the day, as in “What the hell, I’ll eat a DQ Blizzard because I have calories left!” even if you’re not hungry.

  6. Jenny says:

    I agree with the points you made about how focusing just on calories is neurotic & misses the point about recording your food somewhere. For myself, I tend to record calories in my online journal because they make a coordinated set of “best estimates”, along with my BMR and exercise calories. Essentially, they give me some general landmarks as to where I am and where I’m going.

    Also, calorie numbers are the one stat my trainer focuses on, for good or ill, when the scale doesn’t move in the right direction on a weekly weigh-in. So, being able to show my trainer something with numbers that says “See, I’m eating like I’m supposed to!” helps assure them that I’m not going off the deep end.

    Granted, I do have to make some effort to remember that all these numbers are still only loose guides at best. But they do make me feel warm & fuzzy, and they keep me conscious of how much & what kind of food I’m eating. Indeed, I like recording that I ate a bunch of kale & a sweet potato with my palm size chicken breast. I don’t like recording that I ate half a pizza. And I *really* don’t like recording that I was “good” by eating 1 or 2 slices of pizza when I really wanted to dive into the whole thing.

    • Judd says:

      Agree.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Great points. Thanks for sharing.

    • Patrick says:

      +1

      This is the approach I use, and it has been very effective so far.

      I use the loseit app for journaling/counting calories just because I’ve found it to be the most stable, allows quick lookup and entry, and has a good interface for creating custom foods and recipes.

      I don’t, however, put much faith in the numbers that loseit provides. I used a few different BMR calculators to arrive at my current BMR and the one at my target weight, and then try to eat the target number of calories based on the loseit app numbers. After a few weeks, I can see if that target works, or needs to be adjusted up or down.

      Using these apps to establish trends and baselines works, and it’s helped me to see what eating my ideal diet feels like. I’ve been losing a pound or two per week, am maintaining muscle mass pretty well, and don’t feel particularly deprived.

  7. Those are really good points. Like you say in #3, I believe your body’s calorie requirements vary somewhat day-to-day (even beyond the difference in activity level). Sometimes, counting calories makes me eat more or less than I think my body needs (either I see I have x calories left in my “budget” and then eat even if I’m not hungry, or I’m sitting there super hungry but don’t want to eat too much because I’m already over my limit). Both of those are silly! However, for someone just starting out on their weight loss/ health journey (especially those who think they’re undereating and not losing weight, but are really underestimating calorie intake), I do think calorie counting for a short period of time can help SOME. Interesting post!

  8. Tanya says:

    This post comes at a good time for me. I have reached my goal weight and I become whole foods, plant-based about a month and 1/2 ago so I am trying to wean myself off calorie counting. However, I am one that needs the mindfulness of journaling or I forget what I’ve eaten. I was just looking at Aaple App Store and I’m not 100% sure I like any of the food journals on there. I would love to hear what others use.

      • Tanya says:

        Of course, right after I pose the question I find what seems to be an ok journal. Not a food journal but it allows you to make lists…like lists of food. I think this might work. So in this case you can write what you ate and how you felt, where you were, etc etc.

        Oh, yeah, it’s an app on iPad and iPhone called Day One.

    • Judd says:

      Lose It.com

  9. Judd says:

    I like tracking food intake. It has helped me to maintain a healthy B MI. Sort of holds me accountable to myself. I do not feel obsessive about it.

  10. Betty says:

    I started off counting calories and keeping track of different food groups to adjust my eating habits and lost weight easily as a result. But I also lost my love of cooking. It’s pretty easy to enter in one ingredient, but more difficult for even simple recipes using whole foods. Keeping a food journal instead has allowed me to eat all the healthy foods I started incorporating into my diet in the correct portions AND to cook again without dreading the calorie counting that would result. Reading Foodist gave me the courage to stop doing the math and trust what I had learned.

  11. I loved seeing this post. There is such an emphasis on calorie tracking in the dieting world right now. While I have always thought it served a purpose and could be a good indicator of where calories might be cut, it is mostly just tedious and can feel very restrictive. I know that when I feel I am not eating my healthiest, I will keep a food journal for a few days. Like you said, it allows me to identify habits that I need to work on or change completely and gives me a fresh perspective on my eating habits. Thanks for sharing this information Darya!

  12. Kelsey says:

    I recently gained 25 pounds after graduating college and becoming totally sedentary. I wasn’t technically overweight… but my body felt like a blob.

    I got a FitBit, started walking every day, and started looking at my food intake. Around the same time, my dad found your blog, and mentioned an article to me. I’ve been interested in “enlightened” eating for a long time, was a vegetarian for seven years, etc. But when my dad mentioned your article on Fourth of July eating, I read it and realized how OFF my food attitude was.

    Ended up acquiring Foodist and devoured it in a day. Loved that you were into the pedometer thing. Weighing myself daily was initially anxiety-inducing but became a useful exercise in mindfulness.

    It’s literally been only a few weeks since I decided to change my ways and I’ve lost six pounds, while gaining muscle in places I’ve never noticed it (strong back and arms, HELLO!). It’s exciting, empowering, and energizing.

    My most important rule in changing my habits was not to let myself become hungry. Restricted eating was a huge problem for me as a teenager (not too surprising for a girl these days)…. and I always worried the temptation to starve myself would return. Darya, your approach to this is frankly enlightening… Nourish yourself with deliciousness… You don’t HAVE to feel hungry…. Why would you want to starve? It’s bad for you! Maybe this stuff is easy for some people but not for me. So grateful to find guidance in Foodist.

    The only thing I’m struggling to let go of is the calorie counting! This post was very timely for me! I’m a diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive and the neurotic action of counting and recording calories comes a little too easily. I’ve never heard the 20% FDA rule before. And I never thought about the inaccuracy of online databases that would result from the differences between industrially farmed and organically/small-grown foods.

    And knowing I’m being deceived… that might be the “moral tie” that helps me kick this last unhealthy habit.

    Darya, you are beautiful and inspiring. I love your approach to empowerment. So happy to have some younger female role models in this movement.

    So sorry for the super long comment. Can’t help it!! That’s how excited I am!!

  13. Kelsey says:

    PS Might I suggest a Foodist app with a non-calorie food journal??

  14. joe says:

    Excellent points. I happen to have just lost 140 lbs. counting calories, but I was behaving much like a foodist. BTW, according to Marion Nestle in Why Calories Count, thinking hard doesn’t burn many calories. She quotes a professor that would tell his students that they can participate in a class of his with less than the calories in a peanut.

  15. Ashanta says:

    I like calorie counting because it’s easy. I scan my food labels, sometimes weight my food when I’m unsure of the amount I’m eating, or have to use the database. My preference is to over estimate when using the database for let’s say the calories of a Fuji apple. Its worked for me so far. Keeping a food dairy is a bit neurotic to me. Writing down what your eating, how you feel, what time of day is it, is a lot. That being said I want create a food journal after I reach my goal to get an idea of my habits.

  16. karen g in Framce says:

    LOVE foodist. Si in tune with my eating habits in France. My difficulty is still the same. My downfall is overeating in the evening. Have done food journaling but do not need it because I know where my difficulty is. Eating out of stress is a killer for me. Any (additional) suggestions for breaking a habit are welcome.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I think finding the real reward for your habit is key. Is it distraction from your thoughts? Are you eating a particular kind of food? Find the reward and you’ll be able to rescript it.

  17. judd says:

    I still think calorie counting is part of weight maintenance. Loosely at least.

  18. Hi Darya,

    I’ve read through “Foodist” and I’m combing through the blog today. I am unclear, though, exactly how I am supposed to use the information I get from the journaling. I was hoping to come across a concrete example but if there is one, I’ve missed it.

    I am currently following the whole30 protocol as a “Re-calibration”–my taste buds, for one, were completely out of whack and the sugar cravings were utterly out of control. I have discovered the amazing taste of good food again, so it’s working. However, I will finish this protocol in less than two weeks and I am scared to “let myself loose” in the “real food” world, again.

    Can you help me? Please? I am quite overweight. By the by, I cook at home all the time, pack healthy unches and snacks for work, I have read Pollen, Bittman, Duhigg and Baumeister and Tierney, Wansink, and Pink, among others.

    Thanks!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Alana,

      The food journal should be used for identifying habits. It’s a lot less useful when you’re doing a healthy eating program, as you aren’t in your normal habits and so the less healthy ones will be masked. It also helps you to focus on actual behaviors, instead of pointless goals like “drink more water” or “don’t eat sugar” that never translate into real action.

      Being afraid and driven by fear/guilt is one of the main causes of overeating. When you have self-compassion and understand that you don’t need to eat perfectly to be thin and healthy, and that no one has perfect willpower all the time, it’s easier to relax and approach food in a healthy way. Try not to moralize your food choices as good or bad, and just focus on the healthy things you love. If there’s unhealthy things you love, make a little room for them too. Just not every day. You deserve it. One more book that you might really like (especially if you often feel out of control around food) is The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal.

  19. Alana says:

    Thanks so much for your quick reply! Yes, I got 1/2 way thru McGonigal’s book before I had to return it to the library. I went to order a copy and decided to wait for the paperback version–it should be out now! I’ll look into getting a copy from somewhere–thanks for the reminder!

    I already know that I have a bad habit of snacking while I watch TV. (Cashews and apple slices are better than potato chips, but still…)it is something I do to keep my hands busy. Now I have this information–what do I do?

  20. Alana says:

    Thanks. I’ll see what I can do.

  21. Dave says:

    Since each of us is different from the rest, I cannot identify with the counting, weighing, etc. While glad that it motivates some, how I feel dictates the quantities of food I intake. When I jiggled when walking, I felt terrible. So, I did 5 things to kill the weight and the beltline:

    1. Half an hour prior to eating, I would drink a very large glass of water. That gave my stomach and my brain time to communicate, and I was not as hungry at mealtime;
    2. I ate lots of salads. I know that the additives are where the issues reside, but lettuce, bell peppers, tomatoes, etc. could fill me up;
    3. My large meal was at lunch. From that point, it would be worked off during the afternoon, and I did not carry it to bed with me;
    4. Incorporate ONE clove of garlic a day into the food, whether it was cooked into the meal or simply popped and swallowed. My cholesterol dropped 125 points in one month doing this alone;and
    5. I would brush my teeth immediately following the evening meal. That way, my desire to snack was eliminated for the evening.

    I walked anywhere from 5-17 miles per day in my job, so that burned the beltline away as well. The walking certainly helped, but the mindset is where the power resides, not in the walking.

  22. I’ve never been a calorie counter – sometimes I check the calorie content in certain foods but rarely.I focus on eating healthy, whole foods.However,this article is great
    And I want to ask,what about pregnant women?

  23. Darya, you have made the case well for good old-fashioned common sense! The food journal with time, portion measures and concurrent activities would, I’m sure, be much more effective than calorie-counting.

  24. Deb says:

    Darya, I have learned so much from your book and your posts! I use a fitbook journal because I prefer writing my food and activity down. I do not measure or weigh my food–I eat when I am physically hungry and I stop when I am satisfied (most of the time). I use a tool called the “Hunger Scale,” a method that helps you understand when you are truly physically hungry and when your body is satisfied.

    http://www.amazon.com/Fitlosophy-Fitbook-Fitness-Nutrition-Journal/dp/B0050IW3U2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1402970305&sr=8-1&keywords=fitbook

  25. Diane in Los Angeles says:

    I think there is some value to calorie awareness, but like most nutrition awareness, the value is more along the lines of “hey, check it out, this stuff is really packed with calories, maybe I shouldn’t buy it so often, no matter how ‘healthy’ or ‘light’ it seems”, rather than, “I may eat no more than 1200 calories today or I self-destruct”.

  26. Such a great article, especially #7! I run a program called Weight Loss Without Calorie Counting and this basically is the first half of my first class. I should just give my clients your article and save them some time!

    There’s a big difference between being aware of calories and counting calories. I think it’s helpful to have a baseline range of your calorie needs and to be able to glance at a food label, as imperfect as it is, for a quick comparison. But you are so right, counting calories and using that as a benchmark for a “good day” or “bad day” really does set you up to get off track.

  27. Julie Smith says:

    We all have our different ways to cope. The food journal may work for some, some won’t. It’s just a matter of opinion. We all know how our bodies and minds work so I think whatever works for you as long as you see the results. It it works, stick with it. If not, then find another way.

  28. Melanie says:

    Oh I love this. I lost 123 pounds with weight watchers. I believe the program was great for me while losing. It really did help me get to my goal. But… maintaining has been tough for me. I have found my biggest challenge is tracking my points (calories) I cannot do it for the rest of my life. When I “mess up” it feels like a big mark in my journal and I feel like I want to wait until the next day, week or month to start again. So I am going to focus on journaling my food and not my points. I need something new to help me. I have gained about 30 pounds back and fear that it will all come back. I am thankful I found your blog.

  29. Kristen says:

    Journaling works! I had NO idea how much wheat I was consuming till I tracked my food for 2 weeks and couldn’t believe it. Consequently I did the recalibration for 2 weeks, and I feel amazing! Even lost 5 pounds (not intentional at all!). Woo-hoo! :) Thanks for changing my life Darya. YOU are awesome!

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