Journaling helps woman lose half her body weight

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Story highlights

Charmaine Jackson has gone from 260 to 130 pounds in five years

She credits food journaling for helping her achieve her weight loss

Studies and experts support journaling as a weight loss goal

Charmaine Jackson can tell you what she ate on any date for the past five years.

She can tell you how much she exercised, what kind of mood she was in, how much water she drank – even if she watched television while mindlessly munching away.

All she has to do is flip through the pages of her 14 journals.

The reason she began her daily record keeping was simple – she wanted to lose weight and keep it off.

It may sound extreme, but it paid off. Since she began keeping journals, Jackson is half the person she used to be – going from 260 to 130 pounds.

“(Journaling has) really helped me get an idea of what my behaviors are, what my patterns are, how I can make change for myself for good,” she said. “You wouldn’t see it unless you look at it over time and you really get a chance to see this worked and why.”

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‘It made me be honest with myself’

Jackson, 53, who lives in suburban Atlanta, said she didn’t pay much attention to her gradual weight gain over the years.

“I really didn’t see it was sort of a mindless eating,” she said. Stress from work factored in, she said, and she often had a quick bite whenever she had time.

“I’d make dinner and then after everything was done … I would be by myself for a little bit and I’d have the TV (on) and I would just want to wind down,” Jackson said.

That’s when she would start munching on chips or crackers. “I wouldn’t even know how much I was eating. It just went on. … I just couldn’t stop myself.”

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Her breaking point came when she was laid off from her marketing job in 2007, she said.

“That really made me say, ‘OK, I gotta do something about my weight, now’s the chance,’ ” she said.

Jackson did what many people do – she joined a gym. However, she found exercise alone was not enough, and she soon turned to record keeping.

Despite holding bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition, she had not been keeping track of her food and beverage intake.

“I felt very ashamed to say, ‘I have the background and the knowledge, but yet here I am at 260 pounds,’ ” she said. “I was like the hairdresser who doesn’t have good hair.”

Journaling, however, turned out to be a game changer for Jackson.

“That’s when the weight started to come off because I had already started exercising a little bit and that sort of triggered the whole exercise, eating, trying to sleep more … trying not to stay up late and watch TV and really trying to track my moods,” she said.

She was able to identify when she was mad or sad, and wanting to eat more.

“It was my truth serum,” Jackson said. “It made me be honest with myself.”

Other factors, not just calories

“(She) is great proof of the benefits of self-monitoring in the weight loss and management process,” said Dr. Jessica Bartfield, a bariatrician at Loyola University Health System who sees both surgical and nonsurgical patients battling their weight.

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“The easy answer to weight management is calories in, calories out,” Bartfield said. “But there’s actually a lot of other factors that affect how much you’re eating.”

Bartfield said other factors include a person’s hydration, sleep duration, sleep patterns and emotions. She asks many patients to rate their hunger and thirst while they are eating.

“(Journaling) helps them recognize where they might be missing out and skipping meals, or going too long in between meals and therefore leading to overeating at subsequent meals,” she said.

“For example, it’s a very common pattern that people tend to skip breakfast. They don’t eat until lunchtime, and then they may overeat at that meal or overeat at dinner.”

Bartfield added, “Once you start writing that down – what you’re eating and the timing of the food – you begin to pick up on some of these patterns that can be changed.”

Studies in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also support the benefits of journaling, although weight loss in both studies was modest.

However, Bartfield said modest weight loss is “underappreciated.”

“A lot of patients that I see come in with very high weight loss expectations and very few people say that their goal is only 5% to 10% of their body weight,” she said.

“Actually, that amount of weight loss has been shown very clearly to have considerable health benefits, including preventing future disease, reducing current diseases that are associated with obesity and helping patients decrease the number of medications they’re on.”

She added, “That’s actually my first goal for all patients – modest weight loss, or simply 5% to 10% – and I think that every pound counts.”

Many times, Bartfield said, journaling is “the No. 1 goal we start working on” with patients.

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‘Road map’ to success

An alternative to pen-and-paper journaling could be an application on your smartphone, said Marisa Moore, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Either way, Moore said she thinks of a journal as a “personal road map” to weight loss, healthier eating and behavior change.

“Regardless of whether you’re eating something healthy or not, you’re forced to think about it. When we look at mindful eating practices, it’s about being aware,” she said. “Using a food journal helps you to become more aware of what you’re doing.”

For Jackson, mindful eating practices are a way of life.

“It’s saying, ‘I owe this to myself.’ I need to be responsible for me and take care of me, and that’s something I never did,” she said.

She has no plans to stop journaling but said she may soon begin record keeping online.

“Now it’s part of my daily habits, like brushing my teeth,” she said.

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