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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Assessing Your Diet

One way to make sure your diet maintains an adequate balance, variety and moderation is to keep a food diary — a record of everything you consume each day. Not only will you discover exactly what you're eating, but you'll learn how much you really eat, and whether you eat for reasons other than hunger. Your food diary can highlight potential trouble spots and help you come up with a plan for building better habits. A diary also helps you keep track of food you might otherwise overlook — the leftover pasta you nibbled while doing the dishes, for example.

For 3 days, keep a written record of everything you eat. The days don't have to be consecutive, but the 3 days should be representative of how you normally eat. It's a good idea to record 2 weekdays and 1 weekend day.

Carry a small notebook with you at all times. Write down the time you eat, the circumstances (lunch at work, evening snack, etc.), exactly what you eat and how much you eat. Also include your reason for eating. Reasons could be as simple as "hungry" or "it was lunch time," or it could be "boredom," "anxiety" or "loneliness." This record is especially important if you're trying to lose weight. Be specific and, if possible, measure the food. For example, don't just write down, "turkey sandwich." Instead, write down the details — two slices whole wheat bread, three slices of turkey, two slices of tomato, one tablespoon mayonnaise.

Follow this step by step approach to record and measure your calorie and nutrient intake accurately. Choose 24-hour periods that will most clearly and accurately reflect your usual dietary pattern. At all times during this period, carry the diary with you so that you may immediately record each food and beverage item consumed and the amount or portion size. Begin at 12:00 midnight and end at 12:00 midnight the following day. In making your entries, observe the following:

  1. Immediately record each food and beverage item as it is consumed. Include snacks, finger foods, all beverages (including water).
  2. Include all ingredients used in the preparation of each item. Examples: 1 teaspoon of whipped lightly salted butter; 1 pat of margarine; 2 tablespoons of maple syrup; 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise in salad; ½ teaspoon of salt; 1 tablespoon of catsup; 1 teaspoon of honey.
  3. Record only the food portion eaten. Record all amounts and portion sizes in common household measures. Indicate measures in full or partial teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, slices, ounces or other household units.
  4. Wherever possible, include the product description or brand name. Examples: 2% low fat cow milk; Kellogg's Corn Flakes; Van De Kamp's Frozen Fish Dinner Batter Dipped.
  5. Indicate whether the food was freshly prepared, frozen, canned or otherwise modified or processed. Information on canned foods must include the type of liquid in which the product was packed, (heavy syrup, natural juice, water, etc.).
  6. Provide specific information on how cooked food was prepared (fried, baked, broiled, deep-fried, boiled, steamed, etc.).
  7. Identify all beverages by brand name, when possible. Prepared drinks should include specific ingredients. Example: Scotch Whiskey, 1 ounce and Canada Dry Club Soda, 4 ounces.

Make note of which foods you commonly eat are high in fat. Analyze an entire day's worth of food for total calories, protein, vitamins and minerals and compare the results with your RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances). RDAs are guidelines by age group and gender, established by the National Research Council for normal, healthy people. Next analyze your food diary to identify any of these patterns:

  • Eating when you're not hungry
  • Skipping meals
  • Eating between meals
  • Eating in response to stress or mood swings
  • Overeating
  • Undereating
  • Eating the same foods all the time

It may be helpful for you to keep a food diary every so often to make sure you're staying on track; but don't get obsessive about analyzing every food you eat. Use your diary as a tool for learning which foods contribute important nutrients to your diet and which don't. Then use this information to create a more healthful eating plan.

Last updated February 21, 2011