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Food journal

What is self-monitoring?

Self-monitoring is when you write down what you eat and how much exercise you do. Self-monitoring helps you be more aware of your behaviors and see where you might need to make changes to improve your health. For example, if you write what you eat down for a week, you may notice that you often overeat at lunch on days you skip breakfast.

Benefits of self-monitoring

Over and over, research shows that people who self-monitor lose more weight and are more likely to keep it off than those who do not.1,2,3

In fact, a study found that people who use self-monitoring strategies lose almost twice as much weight as those who do not.4

Self-monitoring can help show you how healthy the food you are eating is. It can show you things that you need to change such as eating smaller portion sizes, drinking less sweet tea, or eating more fruits and vegetables.

Another important benefit of self-monitoring is that it helps hold you accountable. Because you can see what you write down, it makes you think about your choices more.  It is easy to forget those pieces of candy you picked up when you passed the jar on your friend’s desk at work.  If you write them down, you might notice you eat an extra 200 calories worth of candy each day.  You might think you are pretty active each day, but if you use an app to track your activity, you might notice that you only get about half of the recommended 10,000 steps per day.

How can I self-monitor?

You can write everything you eat or drink down with paper or pencil or use an app. When recording what you eat by hand, you must be sure to include details such as portion sizes, condiments, seasonings, drinks, oils, etc. to make sure you can add up the correct amount of calories you take in. To calculate calories, use nutrition facts labels or websites of food companies or restaurants. When recording physical activity by hand, it is important to record what kind of activity you were involved in and for how long. Apps are very useful because they will do the math for you.  Most apps have lots of foods to choose from and even brand names and restaurants. They are right at your fingertips in your phone, so they are often very easy and convenient to use. Also, you can sync apps with fitness trackers like FITBIT® or Apple watches to help keep track of your physical activity, or record it in the app. Some commonly available free apps to use include MYFITNESSPAL® (, Lose It!® (, and SPARKPEOPLE® ( It is possible to use an online version of the apps if you do not have a smart phone.

Tips for self-monitoring

  • Be as honest and as accurate as possible.
  • Write it down as soon as possible so you don’t forget.
  • Choose a method that is easiest for you. If you are not as tech savvy, use pen and paper. If using an app is more convenient for you, then use that.

While self-monitoring can seem hard or like it takes a while, remember that it really helps.  People who self-monitor make healthier choices and are more likely to reach their goals.  Try it for a few weeks before giving up. You might be surprised just how much it pays off!

Alison C. Berg, PhD, RDN, LD, Assistant Professor and Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist, Writer and Editor, Taylor Ragan, BS Graduate Student, Dietetic Intern, Writer.


  1. Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(1), 92–102. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2010.10.008
  2. Peterson, N. D., Middleton, K. R., Nackers, L. M., Medina, K. E., Milsom, V. A., & Perri, M. G. (2014). Dietary self-monitoring and long-term success with weight management. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 22(9), 1962–1967. doi:10.1002/oby.20807
  3. Jensen, M. D., Ryan, D. H., Apovian, C. M., Ard, J. D., Comuzzie, A. G., Donato, K. A., . . . Tomaselli, G. F. (2014). 2013 AHA/ACC/TOS guideline for the management of overweight and obesity in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines and The Obesity Society. Circulation, 129(25 Suppl 2), S102-138. doi:10.1161/
  4. Hollis, J. F., Gullion, C. M., Stevens, V. J., Brantley, P. J., Appel, L. J., Ard, J. D., … Weight Loss Maintenance Trial Research Group (2008). Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. American journal of preventive medicine35(2), 118–126. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.04.013