Monday, January 5, 2009

The Economic Diet

The new year brings with it the idea that things can be different. People set new year’s resolutions to tap into this energy of change. The most popular new year’s resolution, now that not so many people still smoke, seems to be a weight loss goal — at least the multibillion dollar diet and fitness industry says so. For those who are setting about losing weight, I want to tell you about the only weight loss strategy that I have seen work for everyone who has tried it, along with a twist that makes it even more effective.

The weight loss strategy that seems to work for everyone is keeping a food diary, in which you write down everything you eat or drink, along with an estimate of the food energy it contains (usually called “calories” here in the U.S.). You won’t remember everything at the end of the day, so you have to carry a book or notepad with you throughout the day. At the end of the day, you can see a list of everything you ate, and you can calculate the total food energy you took in.

This is a familiar technique, and I add an extra dimension that often makes it work better, especially this year as many people are trying to save money: also write down how much everything cost. Then, at the end of the day, you can add up the total cost of all the food you ate. The food diary you end up with is the cornerstone of the “economic diet” approach I recommend when people ask me how they can lose weight.

For this technique to work, you have to include everything.

  • Include all food items you eat: meals, snacks, refreshments, samples, everything.
  • Include drinks: soft drinks, coffee, juice, even bottled water. It’s not necessary to include tap water unless you also want to track your total water intake.
  • Include food and drinks no matter where you have them: at home, at work, in your car, at a party, at the movies, during a workout, or anywhere else you go.
  • Keep receipts when you buy food if that’s what it takes to know how much food cost you.
  • If someone else pays for your food, just guess what they might have paid.
  • When you throw away part of your food uneaten, write down the food energy of only the part you ate, but write down the complete cost, including both the part you ate and the part you didn’t eat.
  • Take at least a minute to look at the food record at the end of the day, and add in anything you might have forgotten to write down over the course of the day.

The food diary apparently works just by making you more conscious of what you eat and the money you spend. I’ve typically seen people lose one pound every two weeks, or one kilogram a month, using just a food diary. Of course, combine it with exercise and sensible nutritional planning, and it works even better.