When you want to take more control of your weight—maybe your favorite jeans have gotten a little snug, or there’s a favorite dress in your closet you’re dying to wear again—counting calories tends to be a go-to strategy. Many people simply write down what they ate during the day and how many calories each meal was in some type of food journal, which can be either a literal journal, a Word doc on the computer, or an app on their phone.
But calories may not be the most important part of your food habits. In fact, you might not even need to track calories at all.
“I use food journals to help clients understand how and why they’re eating,” says Tiffany Bassford, certified international health coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “How you come to the table is just as important as what’s on the table, and journals can be a powerful tool to help uncover this.”
HealthiNation asked registered dietitians what they recommend their clients to track when starting food journals for better control over their eating behaviors. Here are the 6 things nutritionists actually suggest logging in a food journal.
1. The time and duration of your meal
How you space out your meals can have more of an impact than you think. Eating breakfast at 7 AM and not having lunch until 2 PM could mean you’re going into your midday meal ravenous and ready to eat just about anything and everything in site. You might benefit from squeezing in a low-calorie snack in the morning.
Similarly, the duration of your meal could say a lot. Scarfing down a meal in under five minutes could result in overeating because you’re not giving your digestive system a chance to signal to your brain that you’re actually full.
Take a cue from the Mediterranean diet: Eat slowly, leisurely, and mindfully whenever possible. “If [your meal] is less than 15 or 20 minutes, you might want to work on some tactics to slow you down,” says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, and contributor for the nutrition blog Discover Good Nutrition.
2. Your emotions before and after eating
If you notice in your food journal that you’re regularly feeling “bored” or “stressed” before your meals and snacks, that could signal a trend of emotional eating. Beyond just eating sweets and chips, stress can lead you to make a host of bad decisions that can lead to weight gain.
“Tracking your emotions as well as the cold hard facts can really help pinpoint areas where you are eating as a result of of emotion,” says nutritionist Bev Mayfair, RD, writer at Hard Boiled Body. “It can help you see patterns of behavior.” In other words, it might be your coping strategies—not your eating—that actually needs support.
Once you recognize that pattern, learn strategies to stop it. Instead of soothing stress with chocolate, go for a walk, call a friend, or do some yoga. Learn more ways to curb a craving here.
3. Your hunger and fullness on a scale of 1-10
“You may find that you wait until you’re very hungry (lots of 1s and 2s) before you start eating, and/or that you often eat until you’re overly full (lots of 9s and 10s),” says Bowerman. The goal is to eat when you’re hungry—not starving—and to stop when you’re satisfied—not stuffed. Learn more about using the hunger and fullness scale here.
Bowerman notes that your hunger and fullness numbers are often very related. “If you wait until you’re really starving before you eat, it’s likely you’re also overeating at your next meal.”
4. Your bowel movements
It might feel weird writing down your poop habits, but there’s a good reason to. “Bowel movements are a great indicator of digestion and not something to be ignored,” says Bassford. After all, you can learn a lot from both the color of your poop and the shape of your poop—don’t be shy!
If you’re constipated on a regular basis, you may need a fiber boost in your diet. (Here are reasons you might be constipated despite your high-fiber diet.) Or if you have chronic diarrhea, you may have a digestive disorder or food intolerance that’s affecting your gut health.
5. Your water intake
When you’re properly hydrated, the cells in your body can function better. Water helps transport nutrients around and can aid in digestion, according to Harvard Medical School. That’s why when you’re dehydrated, you might feel fatigued, lethargic, and irritable. (Learn more symptoms of dehydration here.)
Not only does it help your body function (and thus help you stick to your workout routine), but many people mistake thirst for hunger. Sometimes you may think you’re hungry when all you really need is a glass of water.
A 2010 study found that adults who ate a low-calorie diet and drank 500 milliliters of water before each meal lost 44 percent more body weight in 12 weeks than those who only ate a low-calorie diet (without the water). Participants reported lower appetites after drinking water, and therefore ate fewer calories during the meal.
6. How much sleep you got last night.
Your sleep habits might not seem connected to your diet, but being sleep deficient affects almost every part of your health. “Inadequate sleep can lead to hormonal changes that result in weight gain,” says Cathy Richards, RD. “I encourage my clients to track this as well and then we can see when cravings result based on lack of sleep.”
People with sleep disorders, for example, are more likely to have problems managing their weight, regardless of exercise habits and general health, according to the National Sleep Foundation. One study of nurses in American Journal of Epidemiology found that the women who slept five or fewer hours a night were more likely to gain weight than those who slept at least seven hours a night.
For more weight-loss success, here are common habits of people who’ve maintained weight loss.