Write This Way: Journals Improve Weight Loss, Maintenance Efforts

After losing almost 170 pounds, Lynn Haraldson-Bering found herself faced with a challenge that often overwhelms even the most successful "losers": keeping the weight off. Today, having recently celebrated her one-year weight-maintenance anniversary, she credits her ability to remain at her target weight to two expected behaviors (healthy eating and regular exercise) and one not-so-obvious one: writing.

"I journal everything I put in my mouth," Haraldson-Bering said during a phone interview. "It makes [maintenance] less of a mystery."

Haraldson-Bering, who has documented her experiences with both loss and maintenance on the websites Lynn's Weigh and Refuse to Regain, is a former newspaper columnist for whom writing would seem to be a natural way of responding to the world and her experiences in it. But neither she nor the many health experts who encourage the use of journals and diaries believe that writing about one's weight-loss experiences should be limited to professionals.

Write More, Lose More
Writing's ability to positively impact one's weight-loss effort was documented in a study by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research (KPCHR) that was published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost," Jack Hollis Ph.D., the study's lead author, said in a July 8, 2008 release that announced the KPCHR research team's results. "Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records. It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories."

According to the KPCHR release, highlights of the study include the following:

  • In addition to being "one of the largest and longest weight-loss maintenance trials ever conducted," the KPCHR research is also significant because 44 percent of the study's nearly 1,685 participants were African-American (representing a community that is at great risk of developing weight-related health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease).
  • Study participants kept food journals while following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, a low-fat plan that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, attending group support sessions every week, and exercising a minimum of 30 minutes every day.
  • After six months, the average weight loss was 13 pounds, with 69 percent of the participants having lost at least nine pounds. Those who lost nine pounds or more moved into the second phase of the study, a 30-month evaluation of their ability to maintain the losses they achieved during phase one.

Looking Back, Moving Ahead
Dr. Keith Bachman, M.D., a weight-management specialist who was part of the research team, noted that finding success through journaling doesn't require hours hunched over a notebook or specialized training as a writer.

"Keeping a food diary doesn't have to be a formal thing," Bachman said in the KPCHR release. "Just the act of scribbling down what you eat on a Post-It note, sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice. It's the process of reflecting on what we eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior."

For Lynn Haraldson-Bering, journaling is just as important to her maintenance as it was during the time she was losing the weight. In addition to forcing her to think about everything she eats, her journal also serves as a record she can consult to ensure that she is continuing to employ the healthy practices that got her where she is today.

"That's when [the journal] is your best friend," she said. "When you can look back."

Getting Started
As Dr. Bachman indicated, there is no one "right way" to keep a weight loss journal. Some people use spiral notebooks, some purchase pre-printed daily organizers, and some follow Haraldson-Bering's example and put their progress reports online for all to see.

Regardless of the manner by which you choose to record your successes and setbacks, the following are a few general tips for effective journaling:

  • Find a form that works for you - Losing and maintaining can be difficult enough without adding another "chore" to your daily regimen. Give your journaling a chance to be successful by doing it in a way that is as natural and comfortable as possible. For example, if you're a computer whiz, perhaps an Excel spreadsheet makes the most sense for you; on the other hand, if you are introverted or techno-phobic, starting an online journal is a recipe for failure. A 99-cent notebook can be more effective than the most powerful computer on the planet if it's the format that fits you best.
  • Focus on the facts - Keeping a loss/maintenance journal means committing yourself to a daily record of exactly what you ate and (if you so choose) exactly what type of exercise you got. Personal observations such as "ate too much today" or "feeling good about myself" can be useful, but your journal must include an accurate and complete account of everything you eat. If it goes in your mouth, it goes in your journal.
  • Be complete, concise, and consistent - It's easy to write about the good days, but for your journal to be as effective as possible it's got to include information about the times that you failed to achieve your goals, too. Getting in the habit of recording "just the facts" (food, exercise, amounts of each) plus a few brief observations will keep your journal from becoming an onerous undertaking and help ensure that it becomes an everyday part of your loss and maintenance effort.

Your health care provider, the local library, and the Internet are all excellent sources of information about starting and maintaining a journal. But the most important input into any journal comes from the hand of the person who is keeping it. Your life is worth living in as healthy a manner as possible, and your story is worth recording - even if only for yourself.

Starting living that healthy life - and telling that great story - today.