1. Write down everything you eat and drink for at least a week.
Keeping a food journal is helpful in a number of ways. Not only does writing down what you eat actually make you choose better foods (who wants to see on paper that they ate six doughnuts?), but it will also give you a sense of how much food you are really eating and what your specific problem areas might be. People can underestimate what they eat by up to 50%, so you may not perceive that you are eating as much as you are until you write it down. When you keep your food journal, make sure you note the time of day, portion size, and a rating of how hungry you are on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not hungry, 5 = ravenous). If you have access to a computer and printer, you can print out a food and activity journal designed by the American Diabetes Association here. Otherwise, a simple notebook or even some sheets of paper will do.
After you have kept your journal for a few days, you may notice that you often eat late at night or that you sometimes eat out of boredom rather than hunger. You may also find that you eat the same foods over and over (most people do) or that you skip meals and end up overeating when you finally get to the table.
In addition to helping you lose weight, keeping a food journal can help you avoid regaining it. If you have lost weight and find the scale creeping up again, start writing things down to get yourself back on track.
2. Learn to read food labels.
Nutrition Facts panels are required on the labels of almost all packaged foods in the United States. They are best used to compare similar products, such as two breakfast cereals or two canned soups. At a glance you can see which product has more fiber, sodium, sugar, fat, etc., per serving.
Use the % Daily Value column as a guideline for each nutrient: 0% to 10% is low, 10% to 20% is moderate, and greater than 20% is high. Look for low percentages of fat (especially saturated fat), cholesterol, and sodium, and moderate to high values for fiber, vitamins, and minerals. A note on trans fat: There is no Daily Value established, and it is best to avoid it altogether. Use the ingredients list to avoid added sugars. In the ingredients list, the items are listed in descending order by weight (from most to least). If sugar or another caloric sweetener such as high-fructose corn syrup is the first or second ingredient in the list, you know the food is high in added sugar.
Keep in mind that all the numbers on the Nutrition Facts are based on one serving, which may be more or less than you eat. If one serving is 1/2 cup of cereal and you eat 1 cup of cereal, you must multiply all of the numbers by two. Beware of misleadingly labeled items, such as a 16-ounce carton of juice that is labeled as two 8-ounce servings even though it is clearly packaged as a “single serving” item.
3. Plan your menu for the week on Saturday.
Menu planning makes life easier on several levels. If you shop with a planned menu, you will be less likely to buy unnecessary food that can spoil, which will save you money. Shopping with a specific list also saves time and can deter you from adding unhealthy snacks to your cart. Knowing what is for dinner every night can make preparation easier, since you may be able to prepare some of the meal earlier in the day (or week) rather than hastily putting it together right before dinner.
Planning menus can also help you add variety to your diet and get out of ruts in your eating habits. For example, you can plan for a different vegetable each day and alternate lean meats, chicken, fish, beans, and tofu for your protein. If you have a family, ask them to participate in menu planning. They might have new ideas or remember a favorite dish that you have long forgotten. Planning meals will help ensure that you do not skip meals or choose less favorable foods out of hunger and convenience. Make a plan every Saturday or Sunday, or the day before you usually shop.