Writing down what you eat—vs. counting calories—is a saner way to keep your diet in check. Here, 5 of our best tracking tips.
Credit: Illustration: Shaw Nielsen

Instead of counting calories, track your food. “I strongly recommend people write down what they eat,” says Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, contributing nutrition editor for Cooking Light. “You think you know what you’re eating, but when you force yourself to write it down, it surprises you.” Here’s how:

1. Make it easy. Find a tracking system you to can maintain. Williams jots down what she eats on a legal pad. You can also snap a picture with your camera phone or use a smartphone app like LoseIt or MyFitnessPal.

2. Focus on quality. Tracking food helps you see where calories are coming from. Aim for a range of unprocessed foods with healthful fat, protein, and fiber.

3. Keep an eye on portion sizes. This is where many of us unintentionally overload on calories, Williams notes. Measuring portions and tracking your food helps you learn what a half-cup of rice, a cup of pasta, or 4 ounces of salmon really look like on a plate.

4. Track when you eat. A study from Spain suggests timing may play a role in weight loss, and eating large meals late in the day may make it harder to drop pounds.

5. Don’t obsess. You don’t have to track every little item, down to the ketchup on your burger, says Traci Mann, PhD, a professor of food psychology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. And you don’t have to do it every day. Keeping tabs for a few days, or maybe a week, will reveal plenty about the quality—and quantity—of your diet.


Label Lingo

Lots of packaged foods have labels touting their low-cal status. Here’s what those terms mean:

  • Calorie-free: less than 5 calories per serving
  • Low-calorie: less than 40 calories per serving
  • Reduced-calorie/lower-calorie: has at least 25% fewer calories than the regular version
  • Light/lite: half the total fat or one-third the calories of the regular version

But, remember, these labels don’t tell a food’s whole nutrition story, and calories alone are a poor guideline. “There are low-fat, low-calorie foods that are terrible for you, and there are high-fat, high-calorie foods that are very good for you—and vice versa,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. So always take a peek at the ingredient list to see where those calories are coming from.