Does Active Logging Work?

Scale-TonyCenicola-NYT

Active logging (keeping purposeful food or exercise records) definitely works. For people who do it. And that’s the tough part. Food logging is especially emotional, eliciting reactions from “it’s the devil” to “it literally saved my life” — not surprising for something with so much social importance.

It’s tempting to try to track “perfectly” from the get-go, and that can undermine your follow-through (like overdoing it at the gym in January). Apps can exhaust the user with many items to enter, not to mention learning an app in the first place. Tracking food is a complex skill in an emotional environment, heavily influenced by how you frame it — what for some is “interrupting the experience” or an onerous “vigilance,” for example, can be for skilled trackers a pleasing awareness that is part of the experience.

Sensible eating improvements often reduce portion sizes overall while increasing or maintaining portions of nutrient-dense foods and reducing portions of empty-calorie foods. Before you count every calorie, figure out which actions help push those portion sizes in the right direction. Once you recognize the nutrient-dense foods (higher protein content; higher fiber content), it’s a matter of enough tracking to reinforce good choices but not so much that it’s a burden.

Tracking doesn’t have to be app-based or involve heavy calculations, either. Some people simply eliminate problem foods, and others guide their choices with an easy, portable measure (“at least 2 cupped hands of chopped vegetables, a thumb volume of dressing, and a palm-size serving of chicken”). Weight Watchers points or diabetic exchanges are other examples of systems that simplify awareness, while pointing out healthy choices.

OK, How?

First, figure out what you can do without feeling hassled, anxious, or overwhelmed, and then worry about the best method (pen and paper; an app).

Start small, maybe with a simple list or by eliminating a single item. You may find after keeping a simple list (with no measurements) for a while that you want to add quantities.

It’s easier to expand a small habit than to entrain a complex behavior all in one piece. (Thus the “floss one tooth” example in BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program. It’s so tiny that it seems silly, but it’s too easy to skip!) Also, a small habit is easier to revise and refine.

Don’t delay beginning a new commitment to healthy eating or exercise, but keep in mind that learning involves some exploration, some experimentation, and often some revisions. You’ll need some new skills and at least a loose plan, too — and there are a lot of good ways to get them. As you improve your eating and exercise habits, focus on progress rather than perfection.

This post was inspired by “Active Data Logging Doesn’t Work,” by Scott Sullivan. The quantified-self movement wants technology to do the measurements (understandable!), but wearables aren’t there for exercise yet, and there’s definitely no good, passive way to monitor eating, except maybe how your pants fit.

Illustration by Tony Cenicola for the New York Times, from the article, “Tipping the Balance for Kitchen Scales.” Part of what’s tough about careful food records is knowing exactly how much. A kitchen scale can help you be sure at home — and get enough experience measuring to make better estimates away.

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