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You Are What You Eat

If you are what you eat, most people in America ought to be having an identity crisis.

That's because most people really have no idea what they're actually eating every day. Research shows that most people have an idea about what they're eating that is quite a bit off from the reality about what they're eating.

So one of the most effective tools we've used for helping people assess their weight and nutritional issues is the dietary diary. For some, being required to actually write down everything that goes into their mouth can be a real eye-opener. There are people who have looked back over a diary and realized they hadn't eaten a bite of fresh fruit or vegetable for days at a time!

For dieticians, a food diary is a critical part of patient assessment and treatment planning, but you can learn an awful lot about yourself, your habits and your needs just by keeping an honest diary for even a few days.

The key word here is "honest," and by that, we mean both truthful and thorough. It doesn't much help to only include the food you eat at meals when you're consuming 30 percent of your daily calories between meals.

It's important to know that a really good food diary will be more than just a list of foods and quantities. To be most helpful, it needs to include some additional situational data. For instance, we like patients to note where they were, who they were with, what they were doing and when they ate those foods. And they should note how they were feeling before they ate, and assess their hunger level, as well as noting any particular cravings they were having.

Why all that? If you keep a diary this way, you'll be able to look back and recognize specific habits and patterns that are undermining your goal of getting healthy. Until you write it down, you may not realize that every time you get together with Bob for coffee and a chat on Tuesdays, you end up having a creamy latte, and often a cookie or other treat to go along. That could be a few hundred extra calories you weren't noticing.

Keep an honest diary for a week and then take a look at it. We do a pretty thorough assessment with patients, but you can learn a lot about yourself just by considering the following questions:

Related to what you were doing:

Were any of your snacks or meals taken in front of the television? Did you frequently nibble while preparing meals or clearing up afterwards? Did you eat while you were engaged in other activities, such as reading a book or working? Did you eat while involved in some collective activity, perhaps a lunch meeting at work?

You can look at those answers and tell whether you're unconsciously consuming more than you intended. Almost any time we're eating while doing something else, research shows we'll eat more. We'll often even eat when we're not hungry, if food is included as part of another activity.

You can limit this unconscious behavior by taking a set portion and sticking with it. Even if you're just nibbling snack mix at a party, you can put some in a cup and slowly work your way through that limited portion, rather than standing by the bowl and chatting and nibbling.

Related to who you were with:

Looking back at your diary entries, do you notice any differences in the amount of food you ate when alone as compared to when you were with others? Were there any people who particularly influenced you to eat more than your really wanted, or kinds of food you didn't want, whether they did it deliberately or not? And were there any people who influenced you to eat the kinds and amounts of food you planned to eat to begin with?

Those answers might tell you that if you eat more when you're alone, you might be embarrassed by the type or amounts of food that you're eating and trying to hide it. If you eat more in front of others, it could be that you're eating out of nervousness, or to keep your hands busy, or to be polite.

If it's an issue of pleasing the host, you can usually explain that you are on a restricted diet and may not be able to eat all the foods offered. While most people are not comfortable explaining that they're on a weight-loss diet, many find it easier to explain in terms of the health benefits they're trying to attain, just briefly stating their on a restricted diet to lower their cholesterol or blood sugar. And other tend to be more supportive after such an explanation, as well.

If you're eating out of nervousness, you could try chewing gum and as silly as it may seem, wearing clothes with pockets to put your hands in. Many nervous nibblers find pockets a great relief.

You can continue to seek support from the people who seem to have a positive influence on your intake. Show them you appreciate their support and perhaps include them in your weight management strategies.

And if you're being undermined by someone you care for, try negotiating. Try to understand the situation from their point of view. They may not be aware how serious you are about managing your eating habits, so their "Aw, come on, you can have just one," may be well-meaning. Indeed, people often feel obligated to be dismissive about others' weight concerns to show they don't think negatively of their weight.

These are just a few things that we learn from food diaries, but you can see that having the information laid out clearly paints a picture that not only helps us understand the problem, but also gives us good guidance in planning the solution.

Through Thick and Thin

Keeping a diary can help you see more clearly. Just think about what you're eating and where you're eating it. Do you seem to eat better when you're at home or out of the house? When you're out of the house, are there some places where you ate more healthfully than others? A food diary helps you identify your good habits, too, so you can reinforce what you're already doing right!

Caroline J. Cederquist, M.D. is a board certified Family Physician and a board certified Bariatric Physicians (the medical specialty of weight management). She specializes in lifetime weight management at the Cederquist Medical Wellness Center, her Naples, FL private practice, you can also get more information about Dr Cederquist and her weight management plan by visiting

She is the author of Helping Your Overweight Child - A Family Guide, which is available at, and

Nutrition Information

last update: May 2006

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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