Ever gain five pounds and really have no idea what could have caused it? You’ve been eating as you normally do and taking your regular walks. Except maybe you forgot to account for those pieces of birthday cake at the office, the sampling around the table at a recent dinner with friends, or the missed exercise due to a stretch of bad weather. It’s easy to forget, or ignore, the little things.
So how do you keep a handle on your health care habits? Since having someone follow you around with a video camera all day is probably not an option (unless you have your own reality TV show), keeping a health diary or using a health diary app to log things like food, exercise, and blood sugar test results is the next best way to get an accurate picture of your healthcare habits.
What is a health diary?
Any written or electronic record you keep of health-related activities (e.g., eating, exercise), of regular test results (e.g., blood glucose, weight), or of your physical or emotional status (e.g., logging pain symptoms, mood changes) can be considered a health diary. You can search the Internet for loads of examples. Sometimes they’re called logs, trackers, or journals.
While you can log everything from sleep patterns to pulse rate, closely tracking the three key areas of blood sugar, food, and exercise will give you a solid foundation on which to keep tabs on your diabetes.
Why keep health diaries?
Making daily entries in a health diary, or on an app using your smartphone or other device, raises your awareness of the choices you make that impact your diabetes. They deter us from bad habits like mindless eating in front of the TV and grazing. On the flip side, health diaries can also promote better health habits, especially if you have specific diabetes goals you are trying to reach—writing down a daily pedometer reading or workout routine in an exercise diary gives you both a sense of achievement and a written record of moving one step closer to your goal.
Perhaps most importantly, health diaries offer you important information to use in do some diabetes detective work; you can see what foods may have caused your blood sugar to spike, and how exercise may help bring it back down again.
Research is in
A systematic literature review of twenty-two studies showed significant, consistent evidence for the relationship between self-monitoring diet and physical activity and successful weight management outcomes. In fact, one study found that keeping a daily food diary as part of a diet plan can double a person’s weight loss (compared to people who don’t log food intake). That makes logging your meals really pay off.
Since establishing the benefits of logging and tracking diet and exercise, more recent research has focused on comparing various methods of health tracking. One study compared mobile app, web-based, and paper journal self-monitoring of physical activity and diet among overweight individuals. Results showed that the group using the mobile app lost the most weight. One potential explanation for this is that using a mobile app allows for real-time recording of food intake combined with automatic caloric calculations, which can be more convenient than looking up the nutrition values of foods and writing them down later.
Technology is getting creative—some devices now track eating in number of bites taken rather than pieces, volume, or servings consumed. Recent research suggests that this wearable technology can help individuals achieve their eating and weight loss goals without taking away from the enjoyment of eating. Other studies have looked into using lightweight micro-cameras to improve accuracy of the dietary assessments in food journaling to help people achieve their health goals. If you’re in a pinch, you can always use that smartphone to snap a picture of your plate and log it later. Actually, some apps will analyze the photos you upload and calculate the calories for you!
Much like the research consensus that food and exercise journals can improve health outcomes, a 2016 meta-analysis found that smartphone apps offered moderate benefits for the self-management of type 2 diabetes. At the end of the day, more research is needed to study the impact of mobile health apps for diabetes care and self-management over time, but preliminary results are promising.
Tips for tracking
- Make it a routine. Diaries don’t help much unless you use them consistently.
- Be honest. Don’t be tempted to knock off a point or two on your BG logs or add a few thousand steps to your exercise log. Diaries are personal—for you to track and see your progress. Fudging your results won’t help you reach your goals.
- Have fun. Use a favorite notebook or colorful stationery to keep your diary or logs in. Proud of your results? Give yourself a smiley face or a gold sticker. Or better yet, reward yourself after a particularly good week or month by treating yourself to something special like a lavender bubble bath or massage.
The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines a process for improving your habits using your journal:
- Reflect on all of your habits, good and bad. Look for patterns, share your trends with your healthcare team, and identify successes and areas for improvement.
- Replace your unhealthy habits with healthier ones.
Reinforce your new, healthier habits. The CDC also recommends using health journaling as one strategy to help keep the weight of.
Looking to use an app to help you keep track of your diabetes habits? There are lots to explore, so check out your app store to find out what’s available to you.
Ok, it’s time to get started! Happy journaling.
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Cui, M., Wu, X., Mao, J., Wang, X., and Nie, M. (2016). T2DM self-management via smartphone applications: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 11(11):e0166718.
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U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Improving your eating habits. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/eating_habits.html
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Weathers, D., Siemens, J. C., and Kopp, S. W. (2017). Tracking food intake as bites: Effects on cognitive resources, eating enjoyment, and self-control. Appetite, 111: 23-31.
Updated by Julia Telfer, 3/17.