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updated: 3/22/2011 2:07 PM

Food diary can lead to better habits

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Q. Could keeping a food record really help me improve my eating habits?

A. Studies often show that people who keep track of eating behaviors tend to be more successful at changing them. If you're considering using some kind of paper or online food diary, think about what you're trying to achieve.

Some people realize they overeat or lack balance in their food choices, but aren't really sure when, why, and how much they eat. Experts often recommend that they record what they eat all day long, with notes of time, portion sizes, where they are eating (restaurant or home, kitchen table or sofa with TV), how hungry they are (1 to 10 scale) and whatever thoughts or emotions they can pinpoint. All this yields crucial information to identify specific problem areas and give hints about what needs to change.

Don't just track your meals; many people gain the greatest insights about how unplanned eating here and there adds up. If you're not sure what to do with the information you get, consider using an Internet website that automatically compares your eating to calorie- and nutrient-based standards, or sending your records to a Registered Dietitian (RD) who agrees to provide you with feedback.

On the other hand, if you already know what habits you want to change, you may be just as successful, and perhaps find it easier to consistently keep, a simpler record focused specifically on one or two particular behaviors you want to change, such as evening snacks, soft drinks or second portions. A log that keeps track of successes (like how many times you work fruits and vegetables into the day, choose whole grains or relieve stress in non-food ways) rather than failures, fosters a positive attitude.

Attitude is crucial: you need to expect gradual improvements, not immediate perfection.

Q. Do eating habits affect polycystic ovary syndrome?

A. Yes, weight loss if overweight, regular exercise and healthy eating patterns are considered vital elements in treatment.

PCOS is a relatively common disorder that involves abnormal levels of insulin and reproductive hormones. It can cause irregular menstrual cycles and lack of ovulation and is the most common cause of infertility in women. PCOS is also linked with greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.

Insulin resistance is now considered central to the problems involved and treatment may include medications in addition to weight loss if appropriate.

Fortunately, even modest weight loss of about five to ten percent may be enough to affect hormones and fertility. In a survey of women in the UK with PCOS, 84 percent of those who increased their physical activity reported improvement in their symptoms.

As for eating habits, besides focusing on changes that allow you to comfortably decrease calories for weight loss, avoiding excessive portions of carbohydrate (especially large amounts at one time) and choosing primarily high-fiber carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits may also help improve insulin levels.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its New American Plate program at