Food journals are a great tool for helping people lose weight. Better yet, there’s science to back this up.

Whether our clients aspire to lose weight, tone up or gain muscle, one thing is certain: Diet is key. It’s unlikely that the 2-3 hours per week we spend with clients will change their eating habits. However, keeping a food journal can stretch a fitness regimen beyond the gym and enable outcomes that benefit client and trainer alike.

A food journal is simply a place to document everything you eat in a day. Scientific literature has established that keeping track of what you eat and drink is an effective tactic for making dietary changes. A recent article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported that study participants who kept consistent food journals lost significantly more weight that those who did not (Kong & Beresford 2012).

Another study, in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, worked with a more culturally diverse group. The researchers found that people using a food journal at least 6 days a week lost nearly twice as much weight as those who tracked their diet 1 day per week or less (Hollis & Gullion 2008).

Keeping a food journal works because it increases awareness and accountability. Recording everything you consume helps you decrease mindless eating by raising your consciousness of the qualities and quantities of your diet. Knowing you’ll need to record that extra-large double-fudge brownie in your food journal may discourage you from eating it in the first place.

Key Components of a Food Journal

Clients can record their food intake on paper or electronically. An effective food journal should include these basics:

  • Date. It’s best to note the day of the week for quick comparisons of weekday and weekend intake.
  • Meal designation, time consumed. For example, “Breakfast—7:15 am.”
  • Food description. Ensure that all food and drinks are listed in detail (brand names, preparation methods, toppings used, and so on).
  • Quantities. Accuracy is very important, so clients should measure everything, preferably with a portable scale or measuring cups. The American Heart Association also offers guidelines for estimating portion sizes (AHA 2013); go to and search for “What is a serving?”
  • Notes. Encourage clients to designate an area in their food journal for recording notes/feelings just before or after a meal. This can help them recognize when they are more prone to unhealthy or unplanned eating, such as late at night in front of the television, after a stressful workday or following an argument with a loved one.

Keeping It Honest

Honest record-keeping is the foundation of a food journal, which is only as useful as it is accurate.

Because the journal offers a very personal look into a client’s lifestyle and habits, some people will feel vulnerable knowing somebody is looking over their shoulder and potentially judging their actions. You may also have eager-to-please clients who document only foods that seem reasonably healthy. These actions can lead to food journal inaccuracies or omissions, which underscore the importance of building a rapport that helps clients feel safe reporting everything they eat and reassures them that they will not be judged or criticized.

Research in the past decade has demonstrated that omitting or “under-reporting” dietary intake occurs frequently, but tends to be more prevalent in the obese population (Johnson 2002). You can turn these behaviors around; ask clients to identify areas of their journal where they honestly feel they can improve, and allow them to be their own critics.

Goal Setting

Small incremental steps form the basis for long-term lifestyle changes (McInnis 2003). Therefore, after your first review of a client’s food journal , encourage goal setting for the week to come.

Short-term goals keep clients focused and motivated throughout the week. Objectives can be directly or indirectly related to a dietary issue, but they must be specific and measurable. For example, a client who wants to eat more vegetables may set a goal to incorporate one extra serving of vegetables every day for the next 7 days. Writing the goal directly into the food journal can be a visual reminder throughout the week.

To help your clients stay focused and maintain momentum, have them do the following:

  • Minimize omission errors by making journal entries just before or immediately after meals.
  • Put the journal in a handy, prominent location that provides continual reminders to keep logging meals.
  • If they forget to log a meal, begin journaling at the next opportunity rather than waiting to start fresh the following day. This helps eliminate the temptation to overindulge.
  • If they are away from home and unable to journal a meal, take a picture of the meal with their cell phone camera and log the meal when they return.

Be creative with solutions, and keep the focus positive. You don’t want clients falsifying daily intake because they feel a need to complete the journal.

Journaling Red Flags

Everybody in the wellness professions sees clients experience motivational lapses. In a food journal, red flags that signal potential issues may include missing meals, recording undefined quantities or giving up on journaling altogether. Another sign of trouble may be journal entries that look too perfect, indicating that the information may not be entirely accurate.

To help clients own the process, ask a few questions, such as these:

  • What challenges in your daily life are influencing your ability to maintain a journal?
  • Where would you change your journal to add more personal significance? (Examples could be tracking cravings, recording feelings prior to a meal and making dining-out decisions).
  • Which habits would you have to give up to ensure your long-term success?

As fitness professionals, we owe it to our clients to help them both in the gym and outside the gym. The food journal is one of the best ways to do that. It’s one of the most effective self-monitoring tools clients can use to succeed at losing weight and stay on the path to a healthier lifestyle.