The Most Effective Weight Loss Strategy Is Way Easier Than People Think

©. Foxys Forest Manufacture/Shutterstock

Tracking your food is the best predictor of success for weight loss, and it's not as awful as it seems. Here's how to do it.

When you think of losing weight, you may envision the sadness of hours on the treadmill and the depressing deprivation of the foods you love. Which, yes, to a certain extent may be required. But did you know that research shows the single best predictor of success in losing weight is monitoring and recording calorie and fat intake throughout the day?

Yet even though it is the most effective tool, dietary self-monitoring is widely viewed as "so unpleasant and time-consuming, many would-be weight-losers can't muster the will power to do it," according to researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of South Carolina.

But a new study by the team finds that the reality of dietary self-monitoring may be far less odious than the idea of it.

"People hate it; they think it's onerous and awful, but the question we had was: How much time does dietary self-monitoring really take?" said Jean Harvey, chair of the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont and the lead author of the study. "The answer is, not very much."

The study is the first to look at how long it takes to keep a detailed journal for those who successfully lose weight.

The team analyzed the dietary self-monitoring habits of 142 participants for 24 weeks. Each were asked to record online the calories and fat for everything consumed, as well as the portion sizes and the preparation methods, for six months.

They found that the most successful dieters of the cohort – those who lost 10 percent of their body weight – spent an average of 23.2 minutes per day on the task in the first month of the program. But by the end of the study, they had got the time down to 14.6 minutes. The researchers also found that the frequency of journal additions played a key role in the success.

"Those who self-monitored three or more time per day, and were consistent day after day, were the most successful," Harvey said. "It seems to be the act of self-monitoring itself that makes the difference – not the time spent or the details included."

So how awful, or not, is it to record everything you've eaten over the course of a day? I can tell you!

I am my own favorite guinea pig when it comes to nutrition and I love trying approaches to eating. In the summer I was at a dinner party where every guest, independently, was on some type of low-carb diet and raved about how great they felt. I have always been wary of giving up fruit and whole grains, but out of curiosity, I decided to try it for a month – and decided that I would log all my nutrients along the way.

And just like the study found, it was so much easier than I ever expected. I used My Fitness Pal online and by app – the researchers also mention Lose It!, CalorieKing – and was really surprised at how simple it was. The program has most foods entered in a comprehensive database and one just needs to find the food and enter the portion – the program does all the rest of the work and keeps a running tab of nutrients. It keeps a list of frequently consumed things, which makes regular items very quick to add. Recipes I make on a regular basis I entered whole in the recipe section and then could just enter a portion size per meal. All told, it took about 5 to 10 minutes a day. It definitely made me more accountable to myself for what I was eating. At the end of the day, nobody wants to have to face the fact that they ate the whole batch of cookies.

Anyway, Harvey hopes the study results will encourage more people to try dietary self-monitoring as a weight-loss strategy. And I agree; it's important for a number of reasons. With nearly 40 percent of American adults found to be obese in 2015-16, up from 34 percent in 2007-08, we've got a problem on our hands. Obesity is linked to a host of chronic diseases, for which treatment is expensive and uses up a lot of natural resources. Not to mention, obviously, that it is painful and potentially deadly for those who suffer.

For the record, my low-carb experiment was interesting. I actually lost weight without really trying and felt fantastic. But looking at the data I collected over the month, I was horrified by the lack of fiber I was getting. Now I'm back to my plant-based Mediterranean-style diet. But you know what? I still track my food on a semi-regular basis because it's really interesting ... and so easy.

As Harvey says, "It's highly effective, and it's not as hard as people think."