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Perception is not always reality.

When I ask my weight loss clients whether they track their food intake, they often roll their eyes and tell me that it’s too tedious of a task to undertake and they dread having to do it. But when push comes to shove, to be successful with weight loss, self-monitoring is the most promising indicator.

A recent study found that the time needed to document total food intake is less than 15 minutes per day. In addition, the time it takes to document is less important than the frequency of monitoring. In an online behavioral weight loss program, the participants that were most successful after 6 months of recording their food intake took an average of 14.6 minutes daily on the activity. Individuals in the study monitored the fat and calories in foods and beverages consumed, as well as portion sizes and methods of preparation.

The study done by researchers at the University of South Carolina and the University of Vermont is the first to define the time required to self-monitor in individuals that lose weight successfully (1).

Jean Harvey, chair of the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study, notes that people state they hate self-monitoring as it is seen as “onerous and awful.” This raised the question of how much self-monitoring a diet really takes, and the researchers found that it's really not as much as people think.

Let's look more closely at the study -- the dietary self-monitoring habits of 142 individuals in an online behavioral weight control trial. Subjects met for a weekly online session led by a registered dietitian for 24 weeks. They also logged their daily food intake online while recording how much time was used on the activity and how frequently they logged into the site.

The most successful members of the group lost 10% of their body weight and spent an average of 23.2 minutes daily on self-monitoring in the first month of the study. The self-monitoring time dropped to 14.6 minutes by the end of the sixth month.

Surprisingly, the more detailed and time-consuming the records were didn’t matter. The frequency of log-ins was most predictive of weight loss success, which confirms the results of most previous studies on self-monitoring. Researchers discovered that subjects that recorded intake three or more times per day with more consistency were most successful. The time spent on details did not seem to matter.

Harvey believes that decreased time requirement for self-monitoring and auto-populated words and phrases when recording increased efficiency in recording food intake. He notes that the study showed setting behavioral targets is helpful for those trying to lose weight. Per Harvey, "We know people do better when they have the right expectations," Harvey said. "We've been able to tell them that they should exercise 200 minutes per week. But when we asked them to write down all their foods, we could never say how long it would take. Now we can."

There are multiple online apps for self-monitoring including Calorie King, LoseIt and My Fitness Pal. Harvey hopes that the results of his study will help motivate those seeking weight loss to utilize dietary recording as a strategy for weight loss. "It's highly effective, and it's not as hard as people think," she said.

And Americans need to do something. According to the latest federal data, almost 40% of American adults were obese in 2015-16, an increase from 34% in 2007-08. Obesity is associated with several chronic illnesses including diabetes, high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It is responsible for 18% of deaths in Americans ages 40-85 (2).

Clinicians can help their weight loss clients adopt self-monitoring behavior with the following:

  • Take 5 minutes per meal to record intake.
  • Try a free app to monitor dietary intake.
  • Create a simple food record tracker.
  • Use a small notebook or journal to record intake.
  • Pick a partner to provide support in self-monitoring.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Jean Harve, Jeff Priest, Delia West. Log Often, Lose More: Electronic Dietary Self?Monitoring for Weight Loss. Obesity, a research journal. Volume27, Issue3
    March 2019. Pages 380-384
  2. Ryan K. Masters, PhD, Eric N. Reither, PhD, Daniel A. Powers, PhD, Y. Claire Yang, PhD, Andrew E. Burger, MS, and Bruce G. Link, PhD. The Impact of Obesity on US Mortality Levels: The Importance of Age and Cohort Factors in Population Estimates. Am J Public Health. 2013 October; 103(10): 1895–1901.
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