When you see people take photos of their meals or post about their workouts, they might be on to something – not a vain something, but a healthy one.
Why to record food and activity
Studies show writing down what you eat will likely help you make healthier eating choices. The act of recording it makes you take a couple minutes to reflect on your choices and feel accountable for them. It also helps put different foods you eat in perspective – maybe you tend to binge on a healthy food like nuts but didn’t realize how that added up nutritionally.
“Hands down, those that record their food intake in detail are far more successful than those who don’t. It shows a level of commitment, mindfulness, reflection, and honesty.” – Stephanie Middleberg, R.D.
Recording exercise can have the same benefits of considering choices more carefully and feeling more accountable. It will remind you tomorrow and the next day if today you skip your workout. It is also full of non-weight victories for a more balanced measure of success – maybe you were able to complete more reps or had better posture in a challenging exercise.
Diet and exercise logs also help you review where you may have gone off track. Maybe you tried to ramp up your exercise too quickly in one week and the next week you started eating less nutrient comfort food. You may blame it on your willpower, but you may have been burning yourself out and taking pleasure out of activity that you sought more pleasure in food.
Since it takes time to see effects in your body, it can be tempting to sneak an extra sugary treat or hide a skipped workout. But we know that long-term health is based on daily decisions – so breaking down achievements to the daily or weekly level is more effective than waiting to hold yourself accountable by the date you plan to reach your goal weight.
How to improve your health with photos and videos
Like many chronic dieters, I have a long history with tracking my food. Most of the time I end up back with MyFitnessPal. As far as food journals go, it is one of the quickest and most detailed. The concern there, though, is how obsessive calorie counting can become. That anxiety can take away from other healthy behaviours and trigger binge eating, giving up on exercise, and yo-yo dieting.
To avoid obsession, you may consider a less meticulous way of recording. For example, you might just take photos of your meals but not calculate the amounts of different foods and their nutritional profiles. It’s quicker and forces you to pause before eating, rather than remembering what you ate after the fact. Not only that, but research shows photographing food can make it taste better: due to ritual, anticipation, or just making healthy eating look more appealing.
“When you only have one data point for a pizza or donut, it’s easy to rationalise that away as a special occasion. But when you see a whole tiled grid of them, you have to say to yourself, ‘Wait, I don’t actually have that many special days.'” – Sean Munson, research author, University of Washington
Sharing the photos on social media with hashtags like #FoodDiary or #FoodJournal can add an extra level of accountability and social support. It will require diligence at first and during more challenging times to keep honest, so you will need to remind yourself of why you are improving your health and how this behaviour is helping you. Sharing goals and progress can help motivate you to achieve those goals.
Similarly, you may video record your home workouts instead of tracking length, speed, weight. Just hit record and go. You can also review for proper form and consistent technique to adjust for better performance next time. Recording your strength, flexibility, stamina, what your body can do is a more positive and more useful record than taking a photo or writing down some numbers.
Again, the caution is overdoing it. Social media #fitspiration can suck you into obsessing over other people’s posts and comparing yourself. If you feel pressured to look perfect, you may hide how you are really doing or engage in unhealthy behaviours to look a certain way, both of which are contrary to the intention of keeping accountable for healthy behaviours. One tip is to follow diverse accounts with messages that make you feel good and align with your goals.
Recording what you eat and how much you exercise helps you put things in perspective. You can look back on why you started and how far you’ve come. You look for what seems to work the best for you and adjust for a more sustainable, healthier approach long-term.
Overall, research and experience shows the best way to be healthy is find healthy behaviours you enjoy. There will be times you have to push yourself, but recording diet and exercise will only help if it makes you feel good. Increased anxiety or tendency toward eating disorder are signs this is not the technique for you.